The Very Surprising Effect Marijuana Legalization Has Had on Teenagers

A greenhouse employee plants small seedlings of marijuana plants inside a Mother Room

A greenhouse employee plants small seedlings of marijuana plants inside a Mother Room | Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images

Marijuana legalization has officially spread to the entire West Coast. Even California, the country’s most populous state and economic powerhouse, voted in legalization this past election cycle. With that, it’s hard to imagine that an incoming Trump administration will try to roll back the clock. Though, some of the people he’s looking to put in charge don’t appear friendly to the industry. Suffice it to say, we should all probably get used to the world with legal pot.

But putting that aside, legalization has been in full swing in Colorado and Washington now for four years. Since then, the industry has taken root. Entrepreneurs are creating jobs and opportunities, and the states are reaping the benefits in additional tax revenues. Other states have taken notice, obviously, as we’ve seen several other states legalize cannabis in 2012’s wake.

One big concern about legalization is what would happen among teens and children. Critics said that legalized marijuana would lead to increased use among the nation’s youth, as it was more readily available, and not nearly as stigmatized. There hasn’t been much data to see if those concerns had any merit.

We do know, though, that use rates among teens in states with medical marijuana laws actually dipped. We don’t have much of an explanation as to why. At least yet. And we still don’t know what kind of effect full-on recreational legalization would have among the youth either.

Some new data, however, is giving us a clearer picture.

Marijuana use is stable among teens

Jars of bud in a retail store

Jars of bud in a retail store | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The results of the federally-funded Monitoring the Future survey reveal that our worries about the youth of America post-legalization may have been overblown. The survey involved more than 45,000 high school students, and when it came to matters related to marijuana? Well, kids aren’t gravitating toward cannabis just because it’s legal.

“Overall, the proportion of secondary school students in the country who used any illicit drug in the prior year fell significantly between 2015 and 2016,” a press release accompanying the study said.

Marijuana, which is the most widely-used illicit drug (and freshly legal in many states) didn’t see a spike in teen use rates. Use among 8th-graders and 10th-graders fell, according to the survey results. Though use is up among 12th-graders, use rates haven’t increased in any significant way since 2011. That was before legalization, so it tells us that legalization hasn’t had much, if any, effect on that age group.

Why aren’t teens using more pot post-legalization? We don’t really know.

“I don’t have an explanation. This is somewhat surprising,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, according to a report from U.S. News & World Report. “We had predicted based on the changes in legalization, culture in the U.S. as well as decreasing perceptions among teenagers that marijuana was harmful that [accessibility and use] would go up. But it hasn’t gone up.”

Teen use rates aren’t increasing

rolling a joint

A man rolls a joint | Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

So, while concern for teens and children post-legalization was a major talking point for marijuana opponents, it appears that it was largely unfounded. Interestingly enough, it’s not just marijuana. Teen use of all other illicit drugs, even alcohol, is down.

“It is encouraging to see more young people making healthy choices not to use illicit substances,” said National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli. “We must continue to do all we can to support young people through evidence-based prevention efforts as well as treatment for those who may develop substance use disorders.”

To reiterate, the overall effect that legalization has had on the teen population? None — at least according to the data we have on hand right now. This could change as we get more and more data from new states. Do we have any idea why we’re seeing dropping use rates? Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, told The Cheat Sheet that regulation may actually be the key variable.

“We’ve always argued that taking marijuana out of the unregulated criminal market and putting sales into the hands of responsible retailers would actually make it harder for young people to get. The new data bear this out, and it’s just common sense,” Angell said. “Under legalization, businesses have every incentive to follow the rules and make sure their customers are of legal age lest they lose their lucrative licenses. Conversely, black market dealers don’t care about the IDs in their customers wallets; they only care about the money in there.”

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