What about the children?
Those who advocate for the continued criminalization of cannabis have long alleged liberalization of America’s marijuana laws will lead to a parallel rise in teenage pot experimentation. Yet over the past two decades, during which time 26 states have legalized medical use and four states have regulated retail sale to adults, just the opposite has occurred.
Writing in Lancet Psychiatry in 2015, researchers assessed the relationship between state medical marijuana laws and rates of self-reported adolescent marijuana use over a 24-year period in a sampling of over one million adolescents in 48 states. “The results of this study showed no evidence for an increase in adolescent marijuana use after the passage of state laws permitting use of marijuana for medical purposes,” they concluded. “Concerns that increased marijuana use are an unintended effect of state marijuana laws seem unfounded.”
But this downward trend isn’t isolated only to states that have regulated medical marijuana usage; it’s nationwide. According to a June 2016 analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of all high school students who have ever used cannabis fell from an estimated 43 percent in 1995 (one year prior to the passage of the nation’s first medical pot law) to 39 percent in 2015. The percentage of teens currently using pot (defined as at least once in the past 30 days) also declined during this same period, from 25 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2015.
Similarly, fewer young people are reporting experiencing significant problems with pot. Researchers at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis published a study in June evaluating the marijuana use patterns of over 216,000 teens. They found that the percentage of respondents who said that they had used cannabis over the past year fell by 10 percent during the years 2002 to 2013. Moreover, the number of adolescents reporting marijuana-related problems, such as engaging in habitual use or drug dealing, declined by a whopping 24 percent during this time. Further, separate data published in 2015 in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse reports that the proportion of young adolescents who say that they strongly disapprove of marijuana use has risen over the past decade.
Perhaps most notably, the nationwide trend of declining teen marijuana use remains consistent in Colorado and Washington, the first two states to regulate the commercial production and retail sale of cannabis in 2012. The 2015 Colorado Health Kids Survey, released earlier this year, points out that teens pot use has declined since 2009 and that this trend has been uninterrupted by legalization. Data from Washington State tells a similar story. An analysis of state survey results from the years 2002 to 2014 by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy found no uptick in teens’ marijuana use during the decade.
It remains unclear what factors may be responsible for this downward trend. It may be that these regulatory schemes are successfully limiting youth access to cannabis. It may also be that the growing normalization of the plant is reducing its ‘forbidden fruit’ appeal for young people. Or, it may be that trends in cannabis use simply ebb and flow over time in a manner that is largely uninfluenced by state laws. Whatever the reason, it is clear that prohibitionists’ worst fears have not come to fruition; the sky isn’t falling and the kids are alright.
Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).
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