Is Marijuana Legalization Resulting in more Teenagers Smoking Weed?

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Studies have shown (see Science Daily reporting) that marijuana use in teens leads to lasting detrimental effects on the brain: lowered intelligence, attention and memory. So it’s a matter of some concern to find out if more liberal state policies on marijuana use for adults is leading to higher use in this vulnerable population.

Still Illegal

It’s important to note that in no state is it legal for teens to smoke marijuana. Those states that have made it legal for medical use restrict the drug to patients with a doctor’s prescription, and even the two “legal” states, Colorado and Washington, do not allow sales to minors.

Unfortunately, we know that making a law doesn’t automatically make a behavior. The worry is that by increasing access for adults, we will inadvertently increase access to teens, in much the same manner as they might steal from a parent’s alcohol stash or raid the home medicine cabinet. In some ways, marijuana is more worrying because a small amount can be taken without the rightful user noticing unless they constantly weigh their supply. Further, states that allow marijuana also allow growing it at home – another difficult to police situation.

The opposite point of view, and one made by advocates before laws were passed, is that any teen who wished to purchase weed could do so, even without legal-for-adults marijuana.

Anecdotal Evidence for an Increase

One story highlights what many feared: The Health Policy Solutions site reported on interviews conducted in Colorado last year (this was before Colorado went legal for recreational use, but did have legal for medical use). What appeared to be happening was that use increased, not just because of availability to teens, but because teens saw societal approval of marijuana use as extending to them as well.

For example, one teen is quoted as saying, “It develops brain cells. That is a complete and true fact. It kills weak brain cells. It does affect your lungs … but it’s better than smoking cigarettes.”

The article reports a 45 percent increase in drug violations in high schools (with citing marijuana specifically) and mentions the surrounding communities are “saturated” with cannabis.

Another survey, reported on in the Huffington Post showed an increase in reported use, with one in ten teens smoking weed at least 20 times a month.

Scientific Research

The issue is a hot one and several surveys have been released. One, by the Center for Disease Control, is called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. The latest survey available showed that one in five teens reported using marijuana at least once in the 30 days previous to taking the survey. The survey shows that marijuana use among teens went up a great deal between 1991 to 1999 (from 14.7% to 26.7%) but then fell slightly again from 2000 to 2011 (26.7% down to 23.1%).

In Colorado, despite the anecdotal reports, use of marijuana by teens dropped below the national average. Significantly in one county that disallowed dispensaries (local regulation can prevent dispensing marijuana), use shot up by six percent.

Another interesting study is done yearly by the University of Michigan and trends in 2012 parallel the reporting by the CDC. One interesting item can be seen in a chart showing availability of marijuana. The chart shows how easy high schoolers feel it is to obtain the drug if they want it. Among 12th graders, the curve is nearly flat, always above 80% responding “very easy” for the last thirty years. If that is so, availability can’t be a driver for any increased use.

The Big Picture

Since availability isn’t an issue, the main concern is whether or not teens want to use marijuana. Those that do, will. Those that either try it and don’t like it or never take it up at all do so by choice as well.

Any effect from marijuana legalization will then only come insofar as legalization influences teen attitudes toward the drug and not availability. This effect was not brought out in any of the surveys. We do, however, believe it exists and partially explains the rise in prescription drug abuse – “store bought” drugs seen as safer than the street equivalents.

If attitudes are the important factor, education about the effects of cannabis on the still-maturing brains of teens might be the best way to have a positive impact. This is encouraging and really the only way forward in a world where anyone who wants the drug can obtain it.

Photo by John Nyboer

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