If you were to believe Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and his ilk (and if you do, shame on you), legalizing marijuana was certain to be the catalyst for an epidemic of stoned teenagers. Despite the fact it is illegal to use marijuana if you’re under the age of 21 in these states, Sessions and his cronies seemed to think that we were about to enter an era of teens acting like dribbling simpletons who stayed in their bedrooms all day playing video games.
Sessions probably watches Reefer Madness on repeat, and his mentality has been exposed as being badly out of touch. Recent research has shown that, far from turning America into a dystopian nightmare, recreational marijuana legislation has actually resulted in a downturn in teenage pot use.
Exhibit A – California
California has offered medicinal marijuana to adults aged 18+ since 1996, but its use amongst students has been falling steadily. As the drive towards full legalization gathered pace, it seemed as if the ‘thrill’ of using the illegal substance faded and with it, the number of teens that used it.
According to research from the California Healthy Kids Survey, marijuana use in the seventh grade fell by 47% from 2013 to 2017. It fell 25% amongst ninth graders and 16% amongst 11th graders during the same period. Moreover, the percentage of teenagers who used weed regularly within a one-month span also fell dramatically across all age groups. The researchers concluded that “the declines in substance use are striking.”
What researchers were unable to determine is why fewer teenagers are using marijuana and alcohol. One suggestion was an increase in peer, parental, or personal disapproval. Another theory was a decline in the number of students who found it easy to gain access to alcohol or marijuana.
The latter idea seems unlikely; especially since the number of dispensaries in the state has grown exponentially in recent years. Kids have never had an issue getting an adult to buy weed before, so why is it suddenly becoming an issue? Perhaps full legalization means fewer street dealers?
Of course, anti-marijuana groups have jumped on the study period like a vulture on a carcass. They are fixated on the fact that the study barely covers legalization of recreational marijuana. To be fair, they are correct since full legalization in California only occurred recently. If only there were another example.
Exhibit B – Colorado
“Teenage marijuana use in Colorado higher than the national average.” That’s likely to be the headline in any anti-weed publication. The thing is, it is actually true. Research from 2015-2016 showed that 9.3% of 12 to 17-year olds in Colorado used weed in the past month; the national average is just under 6.5%. Surely this is a sign that marijuana legalization has corrupted the state’s youth? After all, the herb became fully legal in December 2012.
Alas, as is usually the case with anti-cannabis zealots, they hide the truth behind a headline. Teenage marijuana use in Colorado has always been higher than the national average, significantly so in fact. At the point that weed became legal recreationally in Colorado, over 12% of teens in the state used weed at least once a month; the national average at the time was under 7%. The truth is that the gap between Colorado and the rest of the nation has closed significantly since legalization; from over 5% to below 3%.
Best of all, the research came from a source that Sessions will find hard to dismiss: The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a federal study! According to the study, past-month weed use amongst 12 to 17-year olds in Colorado fell by almost 20% from 2014/15 to 2015/16.
The results of the study came as no surprise to one of the authors of Amendment 64 (which legalized marijuana recreationally in Colorado), Brian Vicente. Although he championed the legality of the herb, he is adamant that teen use is a bad thing, which is why he is so thrilled with the results of the study and not at all shocked.
According to Vicente, it was something the pro-marijuana team had spoken about when campaigning. He said it was common-sense: When you take pot away from drug dealers and place sales behind a counter, where it is sold by regulated employees, they are far more likely to ask for I.D. Effectively, Colorado has become a global leader in taking weed off the streets, away from shady drug dealers, and putting it into a more respectable space.
Vicente believes that the downward trend is very likely to continue. As well as making it harder for teens to buy weed, there has been a concerted campaign to educate youths which Vicente asserts is striking the right notes with kids. He is not naïve and realizes that this data won’t be enough to silence those who want weed banned. Vicente wisely pointed out that those who oppose weed legalization have been guilty of cherry-picking statistics to make their case for the last 80 years.
He said that he was “curious” to hear what they will say about the latest studies on teen use; especially since it contradicts everything they have been saying. Vicente continued by saying that, while prohibitionists switch tactics when data doesn’t suit their argument, it is going to be hard to bat this issue aside. Although he hopes that the statistics will help push Sessions in the right direction, we wouldn’t hold out too much hope on that score.
Exhibit C – Nationwide Teen Marijuana Use Plummets to a 20-Year Low
At the time of writing, nine states plus D.C. allow marijuana for recreational use. This is a relatively new state of affairs, as weed has only been fully legal in Washington state (the first place in America to pass the requisite legislation) for just under six years. However, the aforementioned National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2017 also showed a nationwide reduction in teenage marijuana use (ages 12 to 17), even though it has increased substantially amongst 18 to 25-year olds and 26 to 34-year olds.
At its recent peak in the late 1990s, teen marijuana use was almost 10%; a huge increase on the 4.4% figure in 1990. In 2016, that figure had fallen to 6.5% in what has been a steady decline. In 1990, 9.5% of 18-25-year olds used weed; that figure rose to 14.5% in 2016. In 1990, 12.7% of 26-34-year olds used marijuana, a figure that hit 20.8% in 2016.
Final Thoughts on Teenage Marijuana Use
Why has marijuana use amongst teens fallen to dramatically since it has become legal in certain states? Logic dictates that Brian Vicente’s explanation is close to the truth. In the past, weed’s illegal status means it was sold on the streets by drug dealers who didn’t really care who they sold it to.
Now, in states such as Colorado and California, adults can purchase marijuana in a legal dispensary where the quality is guaranteed. As a result, dealers have either left the streets or are now selling illegal narcotics such as heroin. The War on Drugs has never come close to succeeding, so it is time for a new strategy; one that isn’t based on total prohibition.