Adolescent Pot Use in Post-Legalization Colorado and Washington Is Still Failing to Rise

A favorite prohibitionist theme is refuted by reality.


The recent, laughably bad Centennial Institute report on marijuana legalization in Colorado talks a lot about the impact of cannabis consumption on high school students. In fact, lost productivity due to marijuana-related high school dropouts is the biggest component of the costs it erroneously attributes to legalization. Yet conspicuously missing from the report is any claim that legalization led to an increase in marijuana use by teenagers, a popular theme among pot prohibitionists. The omission is understandable in light of survey data showing that rates of marijuana use among middle and high school students in Colorado and Washington, the other state that legalized recreational use in 2012, have been essentially flat since then:


These numbers come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which generates state-specific data based on two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small samples at that level. According to the most recent numbers, the rate of past-month marijuana use among 12-to-17-year-olds was a bit lower in 2016-17, after three years of state-licensed sales (and four years of legal home cultivation in Colorado), than it was in 2011-12.

Results from the biennial, state-sponsored Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, in this chart limited to high school students (which helps explain why the rates are higher than the NSDUH numbers), are similar:


I have to say I am rather surprised by these numbers. I was never comfortable with assurances that legalization would not lead to more underage use. While it's true that licensed marijuana merchants, unlike black-market pot dealers, actually card their customers (and anyone who has bought marijuana in Colorado or Washington can testify that the stores take that responsibility seriously), it seemed to me that leakage from the adult market might very well make pot more readily available to teenagers, resulting in more cannabis consumption. So far it hasn't happened, maybe partly because legalization made marijuana less appealing to adolescents—a reversal of the "forbidden fruit" effect.

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  1. I favor decriminalization of all drugs. Let freedom roll. On-the-other-hand, how living a stoned (or drunk) life make a better society or culture? Every stoner I know is a loser and many are loners.

    1. You conflate stoner with all pot/CBD users. That’s the fault. “Stoners” are a particular breed, that would likely be losers even without pot.

      Many successful, active, productive people use marijuana in some form, and you are none the wiser.

      1. ^ This

        Only when bleeding hearts and social idealist get involved and want to either save everyone from themselves or try to make everyone productive do things get off the rails. Leave the stoners and other losers on the sidelines, and the rest of us will independently contribute to a better world.

      2. ..and many drink some too,but do,very,very well.

    2. How many daily drunks do you know?

      How many drinkers do you know?

      How many people do you know, who you realize you don’t know their drinking habits?

      My co-workers could mostly be nightly drunks or complete teetotalers and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from their work habits. The same also applies to some friends who I have never seen drinking or drunk or hungover.

    3. Nah, you probably know a ton of successful stoners. Opiod epidemic, remember?

    4. Being a loner/loser is the initial condition. Sitting around all day playing video games and/or watching tv and/or smoking pot is the result of that. It’s amazing how many people get this obvious causal link reversed.

  2. I question the accuracy of these self-reported surveys. I’m not sure that what they’re measuring is the rate of cannabis use among high school students. It may be the rate of rebelliousness or the rate at which teenagers think cannabis is “cool”.

    If I had used marijuana in high school, I wouldn’t have answered yes on any test. On the other hand, kids in sex ed put anonymous questions in the jar about how to get gerbils out of their . . .

    I don’t imagine using anonymized blood tests for kids wouldn’t bias the results either based on various criteria. Kids on Medicaid may have higher than average rates of use. Kids from a hospital with a lot of privately insured patients may have lower than average rates of use.

    Regardless, the Drug War is no substitute for vigilant parenting. Throwing millions of people in prison, effectively invading foreign countries, keeping gang activity highly profitable, and subjecting your fellow Americans to tremendous expense–all because you’re too lazy to raise and watch your kids and who they hang out with, properly–that’s completely absurd.

    1. I agree. Whay do we take seriously any survey of teens that asks them to admit to illegal behavior? By the time they hit high school, they are pretty sure to have learned that when the kindly authorities assure them that ‘answers will be kept confidential’, the kindly authorities are lying through their teeth.

      1. too true….

  3. My guess is that when Hickenlooper runs for Prez, a lot of these questions are going to be asked – and pointedly.

    And to the degree that voters are still persuadable by facts, concerns re pot are simply going to recede into irrelevance – regardless of whether he does well or not.

    Can’t speak for WA or other places – but CO legalization has gone exceedingly well. Far better than I would have thought.

  4. Why do they only survey 12-17 year olds? Why don’t they survey 12-20 year olds?

    1. Presumably because they are surveying high school students over time – and tailoring the survey methods to fit that common location – and doing the survey since 1971 means they have a ton of historical/trend data which they would have to toss if they changed the survey population.

      1. On edit – the NSDUH survey is done using a household interview. So they really do have to separate the samples of kids of the age all living at home (their 12-17) v young adults who may be living on their own, in dorms, with roommates, or maybe still at home, etc (18-25). Otherwise, they have to redo their entire methodology.

      2. Fair enough. I was just wondering because weed is illegal for people under 21 (where legal at all) so I just kind of thought the concern was “people too young to be smokin'”. If you consider the cutoff age of 21, it seems strange that you’re not worried about 19 year olds too.

        But I do see the rationale of the historical data. When weed was illegal for everyone, we worried about what the kids were doing with it.

    2. Is the legal age to buy pot in Colorado 18?

      1. No it’s 21.

  5. In New York State they raised the drinking age from 18 to 19 then to 21 all within a few years. Along the way surveys were measuring the average age when teenagers had their first drink. As the legal age increased, we learned that average age at first drink dropped significantly. Maybe something like this holds back the underaged smoking apocalypse we were promised by the prohibitionists. If kids think pot is less of a forbidden fruit, they just might be more willing to wait until it’s legal for them to try.

    This is very anecdotal, but college graduates who I know smoke or smoked pot did not try it at all until very late in high school or when they got to college. Of the few people I know who were smoking regularly by age 15, none graduated from college or moved beyond the wage slave stage in their careers. They are still social, hard working, and politically range from a hairy hippie musician to a raging Trump supporter. I don’t see the loner/loser correlation some do, but it seems like there is something to science finding a likely problem growing brains have with cannabis.

    1. Bill Clinton smoked pot. Just sayin…

  6. Adults consume pot, whether it is illegal or legal. “Adolescents” are “young adults”. They are tomorrow’s adults. And, they learn how to be adults from today’s adults, who smoke pot, drink alcohol and do so many other things…

    Legalization, or illegalization, as we have seen from several decades of Drug War, is immaterial to this process. Tomorrow’s adults learn how to be adults from today’s adults, and if today’s adults smoke pot, and drink alcohol, and do meth, and snort coke, the law has very little to say on the subject, as has been demonstrated over and over and over again with Prohibition and the Drug War.

    The answer to drug use is social reform, not legal reform.

  7. In every states where cannabis has been legal for recreational use for a few years the market has driven down prices. In the case of Washington State large numbers of black market growers have ceased growing pot as it’s just not worth the effort and risk.
    Just as one might expect they cannot compete against the economics of production efficiencies in large legal grows and so they cease production or ship to other states.
    The legal system is pretty good about keeping underage people from buying and, so, one would expect continued declines among underage consumers just due to the difficulty of securing a regular supply.
    Ain’t capitalism grand?

  8. Psychological research is corrupt. Read the CFS/ME section of Virology Blog, David Tuller reviewed psychr research and uncovered the corruption. They convert investigations into trials which is a violation of protocol,use subjective measures instead of objective measures, change the definition of “recovered” after they start the trial moving the finish line to however far they think they may get. In one case, the definition of “recovered” actually overlapped “eligible for trial” so that patients had “recovered” before they ever started the “treatment”. They basically ask patients how they feel to determine recovery, then spend the trial teaching patients to say “I feel great”. Studies are not controlled and double blinded And, recently, one medical researcher on heart stem cells had about 40 studies retracted — let’s hope no one got heart surgery based on THOSE studies. Many researchers are just plain frauds and their “research” has no relation to “science”. Meanwhile, journals who have been clearly notified that their research is fatally flawed have refused to retract the studies, so the medical community continues to base their treatment of patients on these works of fiction. And, of course, the research that says things that people don’t want you to hear never see the light of day. So, don’t believe every research study that you read.

  9. The”forbidden fruit effect”is unknown to those not involved in the illegal use of any substance,but it is a great one among adolescents.I testify as one of them.

    1. The”forbidden fruit effect”is also known to people who aren’t involved in illegal drug use.

      Most readers of Reason are also aware of the”unintended consequences effect”, something unknown to bleeding hearts who insist upon using government power to save you from your ill- advised life choices.

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