Legalizing Pot Has Not Led to Increased Use Among Teenagers, Study Says

By Evie Blad — August 01, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Opponents of legalizing marijuana have long contended that teenagers in states that have allowed the regulated sale of pot will rush to use it at higher rates than their peers elsewhere, despite age restrictions that should prevent their ability to purchase it. But new research released this week suggests that’s not the case.

After analyzing data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, collected between 1993 and 2011 when 16 states legalized medical use of marijuana, researchers concluded that there was no statistical indication that high school students in those states were significantly more likely to use marijuana than their peers in states where pot remained completely illegal.

“Our results are not consistent with the hypothesis that the legalization of medical marijuana caused an increase in the use of marijuana among high school students,” said the study, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. “In fact, estimates from our preferred specification are small, consistently negative, and are never statistically distinguishable from zero.”

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes since 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes Colorado and Washington, which also approved measures allowing recreational use of marijuana in 2012. It’s notable that the recently released study was based on data from before the legalizations for recreational purposes and that seven states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes since the data was collected.

But marijuana use has increased among teenagers nationwide.

The findings of research on the effects of marijuana use and legalization are almost always heavily disputed. Public health experts who’ve warned about the legalization efforts have said they are just as concerned about their effects on teenagers’ attitudes as they are about increased access to pot.

The National Institutes of Health’s annual Monitoring the Future Survey, a nationally representative study of teenagers’ drug use and attitudes toward drugs that was released in December, showed drops in the numbers of students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades who saw “great risk” in regular marijuana use.

Officials attributed those shifts in attitudes to high-profile legalization campaigns, which influenced teenagers around the country, not just those in their target states, they said. The survey also showed an increase in marijuana use nationwide.

It’s not difficult to imagine that these legalization efforts have had some effect on perceptions of marijuana for people of all ages, including teenagers. Just this week, the New York Times published a massive editorial package calling for a repeal of federal laws banning marijuana. “There is honest debate among scientists about the health effects of marijuana, but we believe that the evidence is overwhelming that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco ...,” the package’s introduction said. “There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21.”

But does a more casual attitude toward marijuana among older users affect the likelihood that teens will use it? People in Colorado, the first state to legalize pot for recreational use, are asking that question. The Denver County Fair, which kicks off today, features a “Pot Pavillion,” where hopefuls compete for blue ribbons for best marijuana plant and best pot brownie and face off in Doritos eating competitions.

My colleague Lesli Maxwell also has an interesting post in District Dossier today about how about how the Rocky Mountain State has already collected $1 million in marijuana taxes for a special fund that will help fund school capital projects and $2.5 million in additional funds for grants to support staff like school nurses.

Shifting views and conflicting research could put teachers leading drug-prevention classes in an awkward position.

If you’re an educator Colorado or Washington, have you changed the way you discuss marijuana in your prevention efforts? Some folks I called for my previous story said they’ve begun to discuss marijuana more like alcohol, emphasizing moderation, discretion, and respect for age limits on use. Others told me prevention efforts are moving away from emphasis on specific substances and behaviors and more toward an approach that emphasizes thoughtful decision-making in all situations.

What do you think? As laws change, should prevention efforts change along with them?

Photo: Partygoers listen to live music and smoke pot on the second of two days at the annual 4/20 marijuana festival in Denver on April 20, 2014. The annual event is the first 420 marijuana celebration since retail marijuana stores began selling marijuana in January 2014. Brennan Linsley/AP-File

Follow @evieblad on Twitter or subscribe to Rules for Engagement to get blog posts delivered directly to your inbox.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP