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A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has concluded that marijuana legalization does not increase underage use.
The article, published last week, took the legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana into account when stating its findings. According to the study, “the overall association between [recreational marijuana law] adoption and marijuana use among adolescents was statistically indistinguishable from zero.”
This finding puts a nail in the coffin of one of the prohibitionists’ most fervent arguments: that legalization will increase youth usage. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. In certain cases, marijuana legalization actually decreases use among youths.
The Study’s Framework
To compare pre-legalization rates of youth marijuana use with post-legalization rates, the study researchers assessed data from the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Conducted between 1993 and 2019, this survey took place in ten states with medical and/or adult use.
Last week’s study also incorporates findings from other research investigating the effect of cannabis reform on youth marijuana use. It was funded partially by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The Facts and Numbers
The study researchers state the following in their results: “[recreational marijuana law] adoption was not associated with current marijuana use or frequent marijuana use.”
In terms of decreasing the risk of youth use, the study states that the adoption of medical marijuana laws was associated with statistically significant decreases in both current marijuana use (6% lower) and frequent marijuana use (7% lower) among youths.
Youth consumption appears to have dropped in states that have legalized recreational marijuana for at least two years.
Though the results are firm, the study researchers did not offer any attempt at a causal explanation of why legalization has not led to increased youth marijuana use. However, the results come as no surprise to advocates of legalization, who have argued for years that regulating marijuana sales would injure the black market. With fewer places to procure marijuana aside from legal dispensaries and stores, access would be reduced for youths.
Legal businesses must check the IDs of all customers to ensure no one is underage, with significant repercussions should they fail to do so. In an unregulated market, no such protections are in place.
More Relevant Research
A federal report published in May provided contrary evidence to prohibitionists’ increased-use-among-youths claims. Furthermore, an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U.S. Department of Education) showed that there had been no statistical difference in the proportion of high school students who reported consuming cannabis between 2009 and 2019.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a separate analysis that also concluded that state-level legalization of recreational cannabis was correlated with a decline in the number of high school students who consumed cannabis. More specifically, the study reported no change in the number of high school students using cannabis — but further analysis with a quadratic change model showed a decrease in lifetime marijuana consumption.
Yet another report from Monitoring the Future from 2020 showed that adolescent cannabis consumption did not change significantly among adolescents between 2019 and 2020.
In Colorado, another study from 2020 found that youth cannabis consumption has undergone no significant change since the state legalized recreational adult sales in 2012.
The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, operating the National Marijuana Initiative, stated last year that youth cannabis consumption is decreasing in states where adult use is legal. The official admitted that they did not understand why this was, but that it was a good development nonetheless.
Other studies are finding similar results: when a state legalizes adult-use marijuana, the use among youths either decreases or stays the same.
A Potential Reason for Decreased Youth Cannabis Use
In addition to driving the black market out of business, legalizing marijuana may also play into youths’ perceptions of weed.
When something is legalized, regulated, and no longer carries stiff criminal repercussions, that thing is then less enticing to certain youths who are looking for risks. When marijuana is less of a novelty, it loses some of its shine.
Whatever the reasons, the results are promising — legalization appears to be working in all the right ways.
[ Read More: Did the DEA Just Advocate for Marijuana Legalization? ]