Survey Finds Teen Pot Smoking Fell This Year Despite the Message Supposedly Sent by Legalization


A few months ago, I noted that the National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed no increase in marijuana use by teenagers after 2012, despite groundbreaking legalization measures approved by voters in Colorado and Washington that year. According to the latest results from the Monitoring the Future Study, released today, marijuana use by eighth-graders, 10th-graders, and 12th-graders fell this year, even as state-licensed pot shops opened in both of those states. It is too early to say whether diversion from adult buyers will increase cannabis consumption among teenagers in Colorado and Washington. But contrary to warnings from prohibitionists, legalization does not seem to be sending a message that encourages teenagers across the country to smoke pot.

"There has been more public dialogue about marijuana over the past year than any 12-month period in history," says Mason Tvert, communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project. "States around the country are making marijuana legal for adults, establishing medical marijuana programs, and decriminalizing marijuana possession, and the sky is not falling. The debate is not resulting in more marijuana use among young people, but it is resulting in more sensible marijuana laws."

That point is reinforced when you take a longer view. Since 1996, when California became the first state to allow medical use of marijuana, cannabis consumption has fallen in all three of these age groups, even as 22 states and the District of Columbia have followed California's example. Those trends are the opposite of what drug warriors said would happen.

Monitoring the Future Study

"How can we expect our children to reject drugs when some authorities are telling them that illegal drugs should no longer remain illegal, but should be used instead to help the sick?" Thomas Constantine, then head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, asked just before the California vote in 1996. "We cannot afford to send ambivalent messages about drugs."

John Walters, George W. Bush's drug czar, likewise cited the purported threat to teenagers when he urged voters to reject medical marijuana initiatives. Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's first drug czar, took up the same theme. "We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine," he complained in 2010. "So it shouldn't be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana."

From Kerlikowske's perspective, this worrisome misperception was reflected in the rising percentage of teenagers who rejected the idea that people who smoke pot run a "great risk" of harming themselves. Since people who smoke pot do not, in fact, run a great risk of harming themselves, it is hard to share Kerlikowske's alarm. In any event, notes Lloyd Johnston, the researcher who oversees the Monitoring the Future Study, "the belief that regular marijuana use harms the user…continues to fall among youth, so changes in this belief do not seem to explain the change in use this year." Neither does "personal disapproval of use," which "is also down some in 8th and 12th grades."