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Free Minds & Free Markets

Does Legalization Boost Teen Marijuana Use?

The only safe conclusion is that it's too early to draw any conclusions.

When the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicated that marijuana use by teenagers in Colorado rose after the state legalized the drug for recreational use in 2012, prohibitionists trumpeted the results, even though the change was not statistically significant. Drug warriors were notably quieter when subsequent NSDUH data indicated that adolescent consumption in Colorado fell after state-licensed marijuana stores began serving the recreational market.

That change was not statistically significant either, underlining the uncertainty about the impact of legalization on underage consumption. It is plausible that legalization would increase adolescent use by making marijuana more socially acceptable (although probably not cooler) or by making it available from legal buyers 21 or older. But so far there is little evidence that is happening.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says cannabis consumption by teenagers in the state "has not changed since legalization either in terms of the number of people using or the frequency of use among users." That conclusion is based on data from NSDUH and the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which has a much larger sample of Colorado teenagers.

A study published in the February 2017 issue of JAMA Pediatrics covered yet another survey, the Monitoring the Future Study. University of California, Davis, epidemiologist Magdalena Cerdá and her colleagues looked at past-month marijuana consumption among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the three years preceding legalization (2010–12) and the three years following it (2013–15). They compared trends in Colorado and Washington, where voters also approved legalization in 2012, to trends in the 45 contiguous states that did not legalize marijuana for recreational use during this period.

Cerdá et al. found no significant differences in Colorado or among high school seniors in Washington. But Washington eighth- and 10th-graders deviated from the national trend. Although the incidence of past-month marijuana use by eighth-graders did not rise significantly in Washington, it fell significantly in the other states. Past-month use among 10th-graders did rise significantly in Washington, from 16.2 percent to 20.3 percent, while falling in the rest of the country.

Assuming that the deviations among eighth- and 10th-graders in the Evergreen State have something to do with legalization, Cerdá et al. say, the mechanism is unlikely to be diversion from adult buyers, since state-licensed pot shops did not open there until July 2014, halfway through the post-legalization study period. But they argue that legalization may have changed attitudes in a way that encouraged adolescent use.

If so, it's a bit of a mystery why there is no evidence of this phenomenon in Colorado. But with only a few years of data to consider, the only safe conclusion is that it's too early to draw any conclusions.

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  • Number 2||

    So marijuana use among teenagers has dropped nationwide. Interesting. If you recall, drug warriors argued that allowing medical and recreational use of marijuana at the state level would send "mixed messages" to children. Apparently, it has not.

  • Cyto||

    As far as legalization affecting availability.... When I was a teenager I didn't smoke pot, but I knew at least a half-dozen sources if I wanted to buy some on the black market. When I was a teenager I also didn't drink. And although most of my friends regularly got high, they would very rarely drink alcohol. Because it was much harder to get beer or whiskey than it was to get pot. In fact, drinking was mostly an everclear-punch-at-a-party kind of thing, whereas smoking pot was kind of an any given weekday afternoon kind of thing.

    Today, as an old man who doesn't smoke pot, I'd have no idea where to go to buy marijuana. I'd have to find a friend who is a smoker and try and get his source.

    So the black market is much more accessible to teens than the legal market is. These prohibitionists have the incentives and effects all screwed up and backwards in their heads.

  • sarcasmic||

    Prohibitionists live in the land of good intentions, otherwise known as hell.

  • Cyto||

    BTW, the same was true of all legal drugs. Ludes, LSD, amphetamines, even heroin. The only thing that wasn't commonly available in my area in the late 70's was cocaine. Probably because nobody I knew had that kind of money. Pot was cheap, so everybody smoked. Ludes were cheap, but less so, so they were for occasional use (but more commonly used than alcohol). LSD.... that was usually a one-off because of the long lasting and trippy effects.

  • Cyto||

    (r) legal/illegal

  • Cyto||

    Huzzah for the squirrels!

  • Libertarian||

    I realize these types of arguments and articles are necessary, but let's be careful not to abandon the moral high ground. What if legalization *did* result in increased underage marijuana use? Would we say "dammit, guess we'll have to keep it illegal"? Of course not. I'm against requiring seat belt usage, but when I make that argument I don't bolster it by denying that seat belts save lives.

    I realize there may not be a single poster here who thinks that only a pragmatic argument is to be made -- this is just a friendly reminder to not let the other side forget that there is a libertarian basis for our position.

  • Cyto||

    Exactly so. It is every citizen's right to live their life as they see fit, so long as they don't violate the rights of others.

    The state has no business trying to prevent anyone from making stupid choices - at least not through the use of force.

    On of my favorite examples of this is dropping out of college. The abbreviated version: It is a mistake to drop out of college before you finish your degree, right? So everyone should finish college, right? So how did that dropping out thing work out for Bill Gates?

    (one could make a similar argument with smoking pot. How'd that work out for Bill Clinton. Barack Obama? How would things have been better for them had they gotten caught and arrested?)

  • Zeb||

    I don't care one bit whether teenagers smoke more pot or not. Better that than liquor (or harder drugs), if you ask me.

    But you make a good point. Don't lose sight of the real reason to end prohibition, which is that it is absolutely immoral to punish someone for simply using, selling or possessing drugs.

  • ||

    So fellow libertarian "Libertarian",

    I agree ...... 'requiring seatbelt usage' is indeed reprehensible but I would hope you would go further than 'I don't bolster that seat belts save lives'. The right to live ones life so long as one does not impinge on the right of others is one of our tenets.

    Assuming you do not feel recommendation constitutes 'requirement' I would not hesitate to recommend wearing a seatbelt as a personal safety option and would also not hesitate to 'require' passengers of my car to wear their seatbelt - it is my insurance coverage after all.

    That aside it is my belief that humans tend to desire that which is forbidden; and the younger humans tend to pursue this desire more 'intensely'.

  • Zeb||

    It was legalized because it had already become largely socially acceptable, especially among younger people. So it doesn't surprise me that that wouldn't be much of a factor in teen use.
    And, as others have pointed out, if a teenager wanted some pot before legalization, they had no problem getting it. SO since it's still illegal for minors, nothing has really changed for teens.

  • Cyto||

    On the utilitarian argument and teen use, the real argument is that a proper legalization (not current half measures) would completely eliminate the black market for pot. This would lead to something quite different from "nothing has really changed for teens". It is the black market that makes it so easy for teens to get drugs. Eliminate the black market and getting pot will become more like getting Johnny Walker. Unless you have severely alcoholic parents, laying your hands on a bottle of Jim Beam is much tougher than getting a quarter lid of the good stuff today. In a post prohibition, post black market world, they would be equally difficult. Well, actually pot would probably be tougher. Stoners get pretty protective about their stash, whereas alcoholics tend to forget how much was in the bottle, or even how many bottles they have.

  • sarcasmic||

    whereas alcoholics tend to forget how much was in the bottle, or even how many bottles they have.

    This alcoholic would beg to differ.

  • sarcasmic||

    Making pot legal should make it harder for kids to get, not easier. The black market doesn't card people.

  • the_tanstaaflizer||

    There is a conclusion here that Mr. Sullum failed to identify: the fact that the changes in adolescent use aren't significant in either direction following various levels of legalization simply proves that adolescent cannabis use is tied to something else: cultural and societal acceptance.

    If drug warriors TRULY wanted to reduce adolescent cannabis use, they'd focus on changing the culture and society's attitudes toward adolescent cannabis use. But that's not their actual focus: their real focus is on stopping what cannot be stopped. Their motives vary, but the bottom line is they want to be the ones to make the rules in spite of our individual rights and liberties.

    Like same-sex marriage, cannabis legalization isn't a question of the morality of cannabis usage. It's a question of who has first right to one's own body, to one's life and its proceeds. And since this is a primarily libertarian audience I'll now stop "preaching to the choir." xD

  • the_tanstaaflizer||

    There is a conclusion here that Mr. Sullum failed to identify: the fact that the changes in adolescent use aren't significant in either direction following various levels of legalization simply proves that adolescent cannabis use is tied to something else: cultural and societal acceptance.

    If drug warriors TRULY wanted to reduce adolescent cannabis use, they'd focus on changing the culture and society's attitudes toward adolescent cannabis use. But that's not their actual focus: their real focus is on stopping what cannot be stopped. Their motives vary, but the bottom line is they want to be the ones to make the rules in spite of our individual rights and liberties.

    Like same-sex marriage, cannabis legalization isn't a question of the morality of cannabis usage. It's a question of who has first right to one's own body, to one's life and its proceeds. And since this is a primarily libertarian audience I'll now stop "preaching to the choir." xD

  • the_tanstaaflizer||

    Double post weren't my fault :P

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