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Regulating marijuana sales does not lead to rising youth substance abuse

Regulating marijuana sales does not lead to rising youth substance abuse
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Those opposed to ending cannabis criminalization often claim that regulating the adult-use marijuana market will lead to an uptick in young people's use of the substance. But, real-world experience with state-level legalization policies rebuts this claim.

Since Colorado and Washington in 2012 became the first two states in the nation to legalize and tax adult-use marijuana sales, multiple studies have been published to assess the impact of these and other states' legalization policies on teens' marijuana consumption habits. The available data is clear and consistent. A just-published study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control affirms that lifetime use of cannabis by young people has decreased nationwide since 2013. 

Data provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies a similar trend. It reports that rates of past-year marijuana use by those ages 12 to 17 have fallen consistently since 2002, from 15.8 percent to 12.5 percent. Since 2012, past-year youth use has fallen eight percent nationwide.

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Survey data compiled annually by the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future program yields similar results. According to MTF's 2019 report, the percentage of young people reporting lifetime cannabis use, annual use, and use within the past 30 days has changed little since 2012 and remains well below 1999 levels.

Perhaps most importantly, rates of youth marijuana use have continued to decline even in those states that have legalized its use by adults. According to a study published last year in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, states with "recreational marijuana laws were associated with an eight percent decrease in the odds of marijuana use and a nine percent decrease in the odds of frequent marijuana use."

The study's authors concluded: "Consistent with the results of previous researchers. There was no evidence that the legalization of medical marijuana encourages marijuana use among youth. Moreover, the estimates reported … showed that marijuana use among youth may decline after legalization for recreational purposes. This latter result is consistent … with the argument that it is more difficult for teenagers to obtain marijuana as drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries that require proof of age."

As for opponents' other often cited contention that cannabis is not altogether harmless, particularly for children, on this point, we largely agree. Indeed, it has long been acknowledged by experts that marijuana is a mood-altering substance with some risk potential. It is precisely for these reasons that the marijuana market ought to be regulated and controlled so that society can better keep in out of the hands of young people.

Let's be clear — legalization neither creates nor normalizes the marijuana market. These markets already exist. But under a policy of prohibition, they remain underground, and those involved in them largely remain unaccountable. By contrast, legalization allows for lawmakers to establish legal parameters regarding where, when, and how the cannabis market may operate. These regulations also provide oversight regarding who may legally participate in said markets and provides guidelines so that those who do can engage in best practices.

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A regulated market also allows lawmakers to impose guidelines regarding the purity and potency of the marijuana products available in the marketplace. And it provides the ability for state or local governments to tax commercial and retail cannabis transactions and to reinvest these dollars back into the community.

Ultimately, the establishment of a pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults but restricts and discourages its use among young people best reduces the risks associated with the plant's use or abuse. By contrast, advocating for marijuana's continued criminalization only compounds them. 

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) — and he is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?"