The Kids Are Alright: Despite claims from prohibitionists, teen cannabis use has gone down since legalization

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SPELL IT OUT Now that the data is in, it’s time to stop the lies against legalization.

Advocates of cannabis legalization insist that legal pot does not increase pot use among teenagers and kids. That was one of the biggest talking points in the years leading up to California’s Prop. 64, which legalized recreational use for adults.

The trouble was, they didn’t really have a lot of data to back up their claims. But now they do. As advocates try to get other states to legalize, and to get towns in California and elsewhere to grant cannabis licenses to dispensaries and other pot businesses, they can now confidently point to a large body of solid evidence that the legal status of weed doesn’t cause more kids to use it, and in fact might yield a decrease in use among teens.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a major study concluding that states that have legalized weed for either medical or recreational adult use have seen changes in youth consumption that are “statistically indistinguishable from zero.” In fact, the researchers found that in certain jurisdictions, teen use has actually fallen after legalization.

In the lead-up to the legalization pushes in several states a decade or so ago, prohibitionists made all kinds of wild, and unfounded, claims about how legal weed would result in more kids getting stoned more often. They still do that, in fact.

But advocates for adult-use legalization were left to make their own unfounded claims. The research backing up the idea that youth consumption wouldn’t rise was scant and far from conclusive. Partly, this was due to the fact that there were no jurisdictions in the United States to study. States with medical-marijuana programs threw off some data, but it wasn’t really applicable to states considering full legalization, and the large commercial industries that would come with it.

Nearly a decade on from Washington and Colorado legalizing adult-use cannabis, and nearly four years into California’s regime of legal weed, the truth of the matter is clear. The JAMA study confirms what earlier research has told us: teenagers who use cannabis do so, or don’t, without regard to the legal status of pot.

Even the people running the government’s “war on drugs” agencies are coming around on this question. Just before the JAMA study was released, Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, appeared on a podcast hosted by Ethan Nadelmann, the former director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance. She noted that for years, she had assumed the legalization would result in increased cannabis use among teens. But, she flatly admitted, “overall, it hasn’t.”

She might have been convinced in part by a 2019 study, published by the AMA’s sister journal, JAMA Pediatrics, that showed an 8% decline in teen use in states where adult use is legal.

The latest, more-comprehensive study looked at data collected in the annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 1993 to 2017. It confirms several earlier studies essentially reaching the same conclusion. The U.S. Department of Education looked at youth surveys between 2009 and 2019, and found “no measurable difference” in pot use among teens in states that became legal. Earlier, the Centers for Disease Control concluded that pot consumption in those states had actually declined among teenagers.

In the latest study, the researchers didn’t weigh in on why kids might not be using more pot in legal states. But in the 2019 JAMA Pediatrics study, the researchers concluded that the main argument put forth by advocates might be right: “that it is more difficult for teenagers to obtain marijuana as drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries that require proof of age.”

Of course, teenagers who really want weed can still get it easily enough. But it’s at least a little harder than it used to be. And there might be another factor at work: as legal pot becomes increasingly mainstream, it loses its allure as forbidden fruit, which is a well-documented motivation for some number of pot-using teens. As more suburban parents buy weed at legal dispensaries and use it more-or-less openly, it increasingly becomes a thing boring, old adults do—sort of like Facebook—and therefore less convincing as a sign of rebelliousness.