Sometimes “common sense” is wrong. And when it comes to arguments against the legalization of cannabis that rest on risks to young people, incoming evidence published July 8, 2020 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics is turning common sense on its head.
Despite decades of stern warnings that legalizing marijuana would lead to an epidemic of stoned, THC-addled teenagers, the data shows no such trend. In fact, medical or recreational marijuana laws don’t affect the rate of teen cannabis use in either direction, according to the survey of 1.4 million students in American high schools.
For the first time in the nation’s history, we actually have conditions that allow us to collect such data; 33 states today allow cannabis to be sold and consumed for medical purposes, while an additional ten states and Washington, D.C. also allow varying degrees of recreational purchase and personal use. And based on recent legalization, the survey results suggest in some cases, legalizing cannabis may actually discourage teen use of the plant.
The lead researcher, Mark Anderson, associate professor of agricultural economics and economics at Montana State University, said, regarding the results, “There is simply no evidence that legalization — for medical or recreational purposes — leads to an increase in teen use…Opponents of these laws generally state this as a primary concern, but there is just no evidence that teen consumption goes up.”
Anderson and his team looked at data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an instrument that tracks tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, comparing marijuana usage rates before and after legalization in 27 states and DC. While medical cannabis did not affect teen use rates in any way (neither increasing nor decreasing the statistical likelihood of use), the most surprising finding of the survey was tied to recreational legalization.
In recreationally legal states, the teen use rate fell. Youngsters are 8 percent less likely to use cannabis in states with recreationally legal pot, and 9 percent less likely to be heavy users. Why this counterintuitive finding, which flies in the face of “common sense”?
The study author suggests it is simply too expensive to sell cannabis to teens after legalization. In recreationally legal states, dispensaries are licensed to manage distribution; proof of age is required.
Caution is, of course, required in interpreting the results of self-reported behaviors. And the position of the National Institutes of Health is quite clear: teen use of cannabis is incredibly risky to the developing brain.
Louder for those in the back rows: Nobody is recommending teens use cannabis.
That’s why the results of this study—and the fact that legalization for adult use is not (despite dire warnings) leading to a rampant outbreak of stoned, demotivated, zombie marijuana teens—fantastic news we can all celebrate, no matter what our personal feelings about legalization, controlled dispensing, and descheduling may be.