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Here’s Why Cannabis Legalization Doesn’t Lead to Higher Teen Use Rates

Tuesday, October 20, 2015 21:04
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When recreational marijuana laws first began appearing on ballots in 2012, voices frenzied around the topic of underage cannabis consumption. Surely legalization sends a message to kids that it’s okay for them to use cannabis, and surely it would make it easier for them to get their hands on it. Right?

The evidence in national surveys on drug use has been interpreted in a variety of ways by analysts. So what’s really going on, and more importantly, how does this information inform drug policy and education?

How Prevalent is Underage Cannabis Consumption?

Every year, a survey called Monitoring the Future polls over 40,000 high school students nationwide on their drug consumption habits. Here’s how things have changed since 1996:

Cannabis Underage Use Trends via Monitoring the Future's 2014 report

Data source: Monitoring the Future 2014 report

As indicated in the chart, cannabis use among high schoolers took a dip around 2008 and has slowly crept upward in recent years. However, you’ll notice a trend downward again after 2013. Interestingly enough, that’s about when Washington’s and Colorado’s legal recreational cannabis markets debuted.

Colorado and Washington may have been the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, but medical marijuana and decriminalization laws have emerged in dozens of states over the last two decades. Changing attitudes toward cannabis are a necessary precedent for legislative change, so it’s important to keep in mind that data before 2012 recreational laws are still relevant and important. That being said, it’s significant that we’ve seen an overall downward trend since medical marijuana debuted in 1996.

Another notable statistic not represented in the graph is a 6 percent decline in alcohol use since 2002 among 12 to 17 year-olds. Tobacco also fell from just over 15 percent to about 8 percent in the same period.

How Easy is It for Teens to Get Cannabis?

Have legalization measures made cannabis easier for teenagers to get marijuana? Nope – at least, the teens themselves don’t think so. Since 1975, over 80% of high schoolers have said that cannabis is easy to obtain, and that figure has only dropped in recent years. It isn’t hard for a teenager to find a hook up, and legal outlets with an age gate are only more likely to crush the black market businesses that don’t care if customers are under 21.

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