Anti-Pot Group Blames 'Big Marijuana' for Possibly Nonexistent Increase in Adolescent Cannabis Consumption

Neither Colorado nor Washington has seen a statistically significant change in underage use since legalization.


Senate Judiciary Committee

A recent analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows a small, statistically insignificant increase in cannabis consumption by Colorado teenagers between 2012-13, when marijuana possession by adults 21 and older became legal in that state, and 2013-14, when state-licensed merchants began selling marijuana to recreational consumers. The share of 12-to-17-year-olds reporting marijuana use in the previous month rose from 11.2 percent to 12.6 percent. (The state prevalence estimates combine two years of data to compensate for relatively small samples.) The anti-pot group SAM ("Smart Approaches to Marijuana") made the most of the new numbers:

Colorado now leads the country in past-month youth marijuana use, after legalizing marijuana in 2012. The state claims this dubious distinction after being in third place in the 2012-2013 report, and in fourth place in the 2011-2012 study.

By focusing on the change in Colorado's rank, SAM obscured the fact that neither of these changes was statistically significant, a point that SAM President Kevin Sabet further obfuscated by blaming "Big Tobacco" for a possibly nonexistent increase in underage use. "In Colorado especially," he said, "Big Marijuana has been allowed to run wild, and it appears that kids are paying the price more than in any other state in the country."

While these Colorado upticks may turn into a meaningful trend, there are reasons to be skeptical that legalization is to blame. First, the rate of adolescent marijuana use in Colorado was relatively high and rising years before the drug was legalized. Second, the share of teenagers reporting past-month marijuana use in Washington, which legalized the drug at the same time, has been essentially flat: 10.1 percent in 2013-14, compared to 9.8 percent in 2012-13 and 9.5 percent in 2011-12.

As with Colorado, none of those changes was statistically significant, and the percentage of teenagers reporting past-month cannabis consumption rose more in several states that did not legalize marijuana, including Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, and New Jersey. According to the NSDUH data, only three states saw statistically significant changes in adolescent marijuana use between 2012-13 and 2013-14: Hawaii, Ohio, and Rhode Island, all of which saw decreases.

Legalization supporters like to point out that state-licensed marijuana merchants, unlike black-market dealers, card their customers. But that is also true of alcohol, which teenagers nevertheless manage to obtain via adult buyers. As I've said before, it is plausible that diversion from the newly legal adult marijuana market in states such as Colorado and Washington will lead to an increase in adolescent use. But it will take several more years of data, plus comparisons to pre-existing trends and numbers from other states, to get a better sense of whether that is actually happening.

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  1. “Big Marijuana has been allowed to run wild, and it appears that kids are paying the price more than in any other state in the country.”

    In Colorado, can teen pregnancy and terrorism be far behind?

    1. Well they do have a magazine restriction so they haven’t devolved into total savagery.

  2. OMG they were right, now that the cat is out of the bag we’re doomed.

  3. SAM includes such luminaries as David Frum. I mean, that guy is like a prophet; he’s never wrong! I must submit to his superior intellect and re-watch Reefer Madness.

  4. See, the difference between alcohol/tobacco and marijuana is huge.

    First and foremost, alcohol and tobacco are strictly controlled government cartels. So kids get those via some adult purchasers, but also via fake IDs or lazy counter people. Side Note: Funny how over-regulation hasn’t stopped kids from getting alcohol and tobacco.

    Second, marijuana, until very recently, was a black-market-only affair. Since sales became legal and the first shops opened their doors, not even an entire high school class has cycled through the school system. So minors are still consuming at roughly the same rates as before and they aren’t bothering with fake IDs or adult purchasers because the black market is not only still there, it is much cheaper than the legal stuff. Side note: Funny how making marijuana completely illegal didn’t stop kids from getting it.

    Coupled with the fact that adults haven’t statistically increased their use in Colorado since it was legalized, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t simply noise from sampling fluctuations with a side of “it’s okay to talk about it, now.”

    1. Is this supposed to be some kind of far-fetched argument to continue the insane war on millions of good Americans who prefer near harmless marijuana over addictive, very harmful alcohol?

      It takes time to end 80 years of fraudulent prohibition. – After the dust settles on re-legalization, average quality marijuana will sell for around $50 an ounce, or less. Then there will be room for a black-market and it will wither away just as black-market moonshine did after we ended alcohol prohibition.

      Legal, licensed vendors won’t sell to minors.

  5. Teenagers should smoke pot.

  6. 5 Biggest Lies from Anti-Pot Propagandist Kevin Abraham Sabet-Sharghi
    By Sunil Aggarwal, M.D., Ph.D.…..evin-sabet

  7. I said @12:13:38:


    MokFarin said @09:19:25:


  8. Everyone seems to miss the obvious… 1967 pew poll found only 4% of Americans having ever used marijuana. Same poll repeated in 2015 found 49% of Americans had ever used marijuana. This increase of 1250% has all been under the plant being classified as a schedule 1 drug strictly prohibited. Prohibition does not prevent people from using, it just makes it more dangerous as the substance is no longer regulated and purchased from black markets. If prohibition actually worked, one would have to claim that use decreased, but it never has. Legislation of morals has never worked, it’s time to stop legislating the decision of one to choose what they consume. End the multi trillion dollar culture war now!

  9. Well, you can’t trust anything coming out of Big Prohibition.

  10. The numbers are self reports of marijuana use.

    Maybe just maybe the new legal status makes teenagers more willing to report their marijuana use.


  11. Hi, Jacob.

    The interesting thing about these latest findings is that they strongly support what freedom activists have been saying all along. Note that alcohol use and tobacco use have both declined, while cannabis use by teens has held steady. But wait a second here: aren’t alcohol and tobacco already legal?

    Drug warriors often denigrate efforts at legalization by invoking our fears for our children. “What kind of message will it send our kids if we legalize cannabis?” they ask again and again. Well, what message does the legal and regulated sale of alcohol and tobacco send to these same kids? Because that message seems to be working, and it does not involve lying to kids or threatening them with jail time.

    Happy holidays Jacob to you, your colleagues at Reason, and to your readers.

    Ho ho ho,

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