Survey Indicates Adolescent Marijuana Use Fell After Colorado Pot Shops Opened

The data still don't show a significant increase in underage consumption after Colorado and Washington legalized.


When the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicated that marijuana use by teenagers in Colorado rose after that state legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, drug warriors trumpeted the results, even though the change was not statistically significant. They probably will be less inclined to highlight the latest state-level numbers from that survey, which indicate that adolescent cannabis consumption became less common in Colorado during the very period when state-licensed stores began serving recreational customers.

According to NSDUH, the share of 12-to-17-year-olds in Colorado who reported past-month marijuana use, after rising from 11.2 percent in 2012-13 to 12.6 percent in 2013-14, fell to 11.1 percent in 2014-15. The numbers for past-year use followed the same pattern, falling to 18.4 percent in 2014-15 after rising from 18.8 percent in 2012-13 to 20.8 percent in 2013-14. Last year's decline in adolescent use was measured at the same time that use among adults rose.


A few caveats. When you focus on teenagers and break the NSDUH numbers down by state, the samples are quite small, which is why NSDUH pools data for two years at a time. Even then, changes that look significant are often within the margin of sampling error. In this case, the increase in past-month adolescent marijuana use emphasized by pot prohibitionists was not statistically significant, and neither was the subsequent decline in past-month use. But NSDUH does describe last year's decline in past-year use as statistically significant, albeit "at the 0.10 level," which is twice as generous as the usual standard. Another survey with a much bigger sample of Colorado teenagers likewise found that marijuana use did not rise significantly last year.

What about Washington, the other state that approved legalization in 2012? According to NSDUH, past-month use by Washington teenagers rose from 9.8 percent in 2012-13 to 10.1 percent in 2013-14, then fell to 9.2 percent in 2014-15. During the same period, past-year use rose from 16.5 percent to 17.5 percent, then fell to 15.6 percent. None of those changes was statistically signficant.

Even with bigger samples, it would be too early to draw any firm conclusions about how legalization will affect underage cannabis consumption. The most recent NSDUH data come from the first two years when state-licensed recreational retailers were operating in Colorado and Washington. While the liberalization of state marijuana laws during the last two decades evidently did not encourage American teenagers to smoke pot by making it seem cooler, more acceptable, or less dangerous, broad legalization for adults might still drive up adolescent use in particular states through diversion from legal buyers.

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  1. Clearly it stopped being the cool and rebellious thing to do.

    1. That and pretty much any teenager who wants to smoke pot probably already was doing so.

    2. Sin taxes make sinning less sinful.

    3. Not only that but making it legal actually makes it somewhat harder for minors to get their hands on it.

      With legal shops present it is hard to make sufficient profit from selling it illegally to justify the risk of police action and legal sellers are not going to risk their business by selling to minors.

    4. It won’t make Mom & Dad mad….

  2. These surveys are pretty worthless. You have to rely on people to actually tell the truth and there’s no way to know that.

    And it’s really not relevant to the overall fact that there should not be such a thing as an illegal drug. In just about all of the other countries I’ve been in outside the USA, except for Canada, there doesn’t seem to be any hindrance at all to kids getting alcohol. If there are any laws about that, people just ignore them. And yet, I’ve never seen hordes of alcoholic children passed out in the streets in those countries. Drug laws are stupid and immoral. The only argument I care to make is end the war on drugs now, period, the government does not legitimately have the authority to tell you what substances you can put into your own body.

    1. The surveys aren’t worthless but they don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of teens actual behavior and changes in the results are just as likely to say something about teens views and perceptions of the subject than their actual behavior but tracking the changes in self reporting rates over time can still be of value.

      2 years ago the town of Wilmington Mass had the students complete a student risk questionnaire where they were asked about drug, alcohol, use and sexual activity. In that survey 7th graders had reported higher levels of past year sexual activity than 11th graders had reported lifetime sexual activity. In order for that to be true one of the following must have been true…

      The 7th graders were lying and claiming sex that never happened
      The 11th graders were lying and claiming to have had less sex than they had
      That both were telling the truth but somehow within the same town there had been a radical change in behavior between cohorts of kids just 4 years apart in age

      Digging even further into the numbers it became easy to see the 7th graders were lying (almost 40% of the “sexually active” 7th grade males claimed to have lost their virginity before the age of 10 while less than 2% of the females reported the same). Tracking that information over time would be of significant value, they key is to recognize that you are tracking something which contains both changes in behavior and changes in perceptions that alter how behavior is self reported.

  3. File under: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

    1. +1 Yogi

  4. No worries — I picked up the slack from those pill-popping dweebs.

  5. I was always able to find me some one to buy me alcohol when I was 16. Back in the early 60s.

    I had to pay more than the shelf price though.

    1. When I was 16, it was easy to get alcohol or weed, just about all you wanted.

    2. Me too,but weed just might be different…at least for a few years.

  6. It still absolutely dumbfounds me how supposedly intelligent persons cannot wrap their Puritanical minds around the notion that is easier to keep (insert vice of choice here) out of the hands of children when said vice is legal versus allowing the black market decide who the consumers are. I vehemently oppose government regulations, but legal (insert vice) with government regulation is, was, always will be better than prohibition. That, in my mind’s eye, is an indisputable fact.

    1. The reason legal is better is because drugs being illegal doesn’t stop drugs, but we waste billions on it and ruin people’s lives for no benefit at all. The drug war is immoral, period.

  7. In other news, today’s kids are pussies.

  8. File this under “Another poll to support my presuppositions.”

    There is a lot of War on Christmas stuff in there, but halfway down: “Nearly one-quarter (24%) of Democrats say they blocked, unfriended, or stopped following someone on social media after the election because of their political posts on social media. Fewer than one in ten Republicans (9%) and independents (9%) report eliminating people from their social media circle.”

    1. Leftism is a religion. It’s based on pure faith. You have to get the unbelievers away from you when you’re a leftist, so you can keep the delusion going that everyone agrees with you and you’re not really delusional like the infidels keep telling you. Deniers they are!

      1. That and Leftist’s tend to attach their political views to their own personal sense of morality and ethics, otherwise virtue signalling would not be a thing.

        1. Must prog harder!

        2. In my experience those who are on the right do the same.

      2. Leftism is creeping communism,nothing less. I just read Hayak.

    2. But I wonder what those numbers really mean?

  9. Somebody remind me; we take surveys that ask teenagers to trust that admissions of illegal activity will be held in confidence seriusly. Why is that?

    1. Because it’s something that people are interested in and there isn’t any better source for information on the subject.

      I would think that changes in the numbers, at least, have some meaning.

      I may not be typical, but I always answered surveys like that honestly. I’d expect that some kids would exaggerate their drug use too.

      1. Since the feds still maintain that weed is illegal everywhere, I would imagine most teenagers surveyed by a stranger would be adverse to answering such surveys honestly. The ones who are high when the surveyor tried to contact them are especially likely to be, you know, paranoid. Throw in the problem with contacting teens in the first place, the high percentage of non-respondents, and the small sample sizes, and what this data really says is, “we don’t know what is going on because GIGO”.

        1. Maybe I’m weird. I wanted to be included in the survey results as someone who was an enthusiast for recreational drugs and a good student.

          Who knows? Anyway, Hyperion is right, the real argument for legalization is that the drug war is evil and it’s nobody’s damn business what drugs anyone wants to take.

          1. I remember surveys like those back in my high school days. There were always a few outrageous outliers in the questions that were far beyond the pale of the behavior of anyone but the most depraved.
            I always choose those options. Trend line that

    1. sqewrls – who can do html

      1. Sanders to head the DEA? That may be better than Ron.

        1. One of my better brain farts.

          1. Friends close and enemies closer. Valid strategy.

  10. If we’re going to hypothesize about why this might be, here’s a suggestion . . .

    When I was in Mexico, it was well known in the expat community, among both Canadians and Americans, that it was practically impossible to get good weed. Whenever expats had get togethers, it was a constant topic of conversation–they’d all say, “You cannot get good weed in Mexico”. (not that I cared).

    They said the reason was because the good weed is too valuable for export. If you can get so much more for it in the United States, why would you sell it on the cheap market at home? There’s plenty of good weed grown in Mexico, but it’s going to where it gets the highest prices–and that’s not in Mexico.

    I’m going to suggest that if weed through legal retailers is commanding a significant premium in places like Colorado, then it’s probably starving the cheap dime bag market of product. There may be shops buying cheaper weed on the street and reselling it, but maybe it’s also that the legitimate growers used to be black market growers–and now their product isn’t going through the same market channels. It’s going to legal retailers because of the price premium.

    1. The legal penalties being based on weight and not potency will drive smugglers to go for potency.

      If weed was completely legal at all levels of government, then less potent but cheap to grow strains would become more common. I’m assuming right now the less potent stuff like leaves is being turned into concentrates, while trimmings of pretty looking buds are turned into the loose pack in preroll joints.

      1. If weed was completely legal at all levels of government, then less potent but cheap to grow strains would become more common.

        Maybe, but I’m not so sure. The more potent stuff is just better. The ubiquity of really good stuff seems to have really gotten going with medical legalization in CA and other places.

        I could be wrong, but in my limited experience, people really do demand good, potent stuff and generally prefer it to lower potency weed, even if it is well prepared and less expensive. Lower quality stuff gets made into concentrates and such because there is less demand for it.

        1. Once it reaches the level of ‘one hit wonder’, the marginal value of further potency rapidly approaches zero.
          Each has their preference in setting their particular level, but potency for potency sake is like any other over-engineered product that costs more because it sounds cooler to have the most X in your social circle.

    2. In Colorado, as I understand it, there is plenty of informal sales going on. The stores are hardly the only source for locals. So I’d bet that the kids can still get all the weed they want.

      My guess is that legalization has very little effect one way or the other on teenage use and we are just seeing the sort of variations of use that would happen in any case.

      1. “In Colorado, as I understand it, there is plenty of informal sales going on. The stores are hardly the only source for locals. So I’d bet that the kids can still get all the weed they want.”

        I didn’t say there weren’t any informal sales. I didn’t say the stores were the only source either.

        Are you saying that price premiums don’t impact supplier behavior or distribution?

        If so, why?

        Do you have any examples of that ever happening, where price premiums didn’t change supplier behavior or distribution?

        1. What I am saying is that I don’t think that many locals in Colorado are paying a price premium over what they were paying before legalization for store bought stuff. And I believe that prices (at stores and in the informal market) have been falling because there is abundant supply for both “street” sales and legal retail.

          This is mostly based on anecdotal evidence.

          1. Whether prices were higher before legalization is one question.

            Whether people are paying a premium over street prices to buy at legal retailers is a separate question.

            If the people who used to grow illegally are now getting a premium over street prices by selling through legal retailers, then that shifts distribution towards legal retailers–who are more reluctant to sell to children.

            I don’t know what people were paying on the street in Colorado before legalization. I’m seeing websites that suggest the average legal price is around $280 an ounce. That appears to be substantially higher than what people pay on the street. Maybe 40% higher.

            Here’s another possibility: Now that people are paying a premium, maybe they’re being more careful about keeping it hidden from their pinching kids.

    3. The weed they sell in CO is very potent compared to the stuff I used in the 70’s. You really don’t need much of it to get completely wasted. About 3 hits is enough, so while it seems expensive…a little goes a long way.

      1. Two hitter quitter was common in the early ’80s.

      2. Agree. A little goes far enough these days to bring up questions about shelf life.

    4. “If you can get so much more for it in the United States, why would you sell it on the cheap market at home?”

      A.J. Nock made that point about finding good beer in Europe: it wasn’t found in the town where it was made, but abroad.

  11. I knew this kid who tried pot in high school and then he got hooked on coke in college and then he was a handsome and successful oil executive and then he became an alcoholic and then he overdosed at 50 on xanax and oxy after returning home from an AA meeting.

    Stay away from pot – it will surely be your own undoing.


    1. #Ipoopedinmypants

  12. Regardless, I bet it has something to do with legal weed commanding a premium and that either pricing it out of the reach of kids or that premium just changing the distribution channel.

    We’ve assumed that falling prices would diminish the incentive for gangs and the black market to participate in the marijuana market over the long run, and maybe that will still be the case. In the short term, during the transition, however, we should expect to see the unexpected. Markets don’t always behave according to script.

    1. I can’t see a whole lot of incentives for gangs or black markets in the legalized states at all. The weed in CO and WA is cheap and potent. Now, moving the product to faraway markets where it is still illegal carries risks, and makes black markets there much more profitable than in the legalized states.

      I mean, if you’re a rational gangbanger in CO, do you grow and distribute in the black market in that state and turn a profit based on a dollar a gram price differential, or do you ship the weed somewhere that you can double or quadruple the price?

      1. It’s going to hurt them. No question.

        I think some of the surprise is coming from the fact that legal marijuana isn’t less expensive than what you can buy on the street–certainly not when you add in taxes. What I was trying to address is that our utilitarian arguments about legalization were largely centered around the assumption that all the good stuff would happen when the price of marijuana went down. However, the good things we’re seeing coming out of Colorado are happening despite the prices going up–relative to what people can buy on the street.

      2. In other words, we expected cheap marijuana to undercut the profits of the cartels and the gangs, but what seems to be happening isn’t that. Expensive legal marijuana is a substitute for cheaper black market marijuana, but people prefer to pay extra to buy the legal stuff for various reasons. It appears to be like when people are willing to pay extra to use an ATM or when people pay double for items at a convenience store over what they’d pay at the grocery. The market doesn’t always think that cheaper is better. Sometimes, more convenient is better.

        Not having to worry about the police is better–maybe people are paying a premium for that. Maybe the selection is better at a retail establishment–and people will pay a premium for trendy strains like they will for coffee. Maybe marijuana is being priced as a luxury good rather than a normal good. There are numerous explanations, and I’m hypothesizing like everyone else at this point as to why the kids’ market is suddenly drying up. That prices at legal retailers are higher than they are in the street should give us a clue.

        But this was unexpected.

  13. When it’s not as rebellious fewer teens do it.

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