In the Weeds

Cannabis’s social impact isn’t that bad, but the good stuff is overblown

From the beginning, a weird assumption has permeated discussions of cannabis legalization: that if removing legal penalties from pot means more people will use it, that’s a problem. It’s not surprising that prohibitionists believe this (or say they do). But it’s odd that advocates of legal pot often seem – mostly by implication – to agree. This usually happens when pro-legalization people trot out statistics that purportedly show that legalization doesn’t increase pot consumption, or doesn’t do so by much.

This isn’t so surprising, really. A big part of the effort to legalize is aimed at easing the moral panic that lies behind prohibition. Don’t worry, advocates tell the worrywarts, legalizing weed won’t lead to a citizenry composed of zonked-out potheads. Still, given that advocates also extol all the benefits of weed, and given that many of them are in the pot business and would like to sell more weed to more people, it’s weird.
This is yet another issue complicated by the unique attributes of pot: it’s an intoxicant that can be abused, but is also a health remedy (in ways both proven and speculative). It’s used in religious rites and also by slack-jawed teenagers who get baked to play video games or watch Marvel movies, as well as by responsible adults using it to relax after work (and perhaps watch Marvel movies). No other substance is really like this. Psychedelics come close, but even the mildest of them can be very dangerous if used carelessly. That’s not the case with pot. Wine is used in religious sacraments, but, unlike with weed (or at least, with THC) intoxication isn’t usually the goal.

All of this makes it impossible for anyone to truly take a side with pot: thumbs-up or thumbs-down (which isn’t the same as approving or disapproving of legalization). In terms of its impact on society, it’s both good and bad, though most of the bad stuff isn’t that bad, and some of the good stuff is overblown.

So, does legalization lead to increased use? On balance, the research seems to indicate that the answer is: sometimes, but not by very much. One 2018 study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that pot use ticked up a bit for certain populations, but also that problematic use increased. Problematic was defined as obsessive use or addiction (a thorny term when it comes to weed, which is much easier to kick than, say, nicotine). Interestingly, the increases in both use and problematic use were seen mostly in older adults: those 26 and up. For younger people, ages 12-25, any increases were so tiny the researchers wrote them off as statistical noise. The researchers based their findings on data they pulled from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

For the older adults, the increases in use, heavy use, and problematic use were marginal – less than two percentage points. The researchers were careful to repeatedly state that their findings should not be taken as ammunition for prohibitionists, but of course that didn’t stop the prohibitionists from focusing on those marginal increases as proof that weed is evil.

Those prohibitionists were no doubt disappointed in the lack of increased use among younger adults and kids shown by the JAMA study and others. Protecting the children is their go-to argument, after all. So they are likely even more disappointed by a study published last week by the federal government concluding that legalization has led to no increase at all in pot use among adolescents.

That study, from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, found that between 2009 (when there were no legal recreational markets) and 2019 (after several states had legalized) there was no measurable difference in how many high-schoolers reported consuming cannabis at least once in the previous 30 days. In both of those years, the number of adolescents who reported using weed hovered slightly above 20 percent.

As legalization advocates have said all along, the legal status of weed seems to have little to do with whether someone is going to use cannabis.

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