When the debate over legalizing cannabis in Washington State was raging back in 2012, one of the main concerns of opponents to decriminalization was that decriminalizing weed would lead to an increase in use by teens. But is there really a connection between legal marijuana and teen use?
While cannabis policy is very much in flux—as of this writing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions just announced a crackdown—early indications are that legal marijuana and teen use are having beneficial effects. Not only here in Washington State but nationally, increased access to marijuana is leading to declines in negative outcomes such as abuse or dependency.
The next few years will provide a better idea of developing trends, but we’re hopeful that legalization will continue to have positive effects on healthcare, public policy, and the criminal justice system.
Legal Cannabis and Teen Use: The Numbers Don’t Lie
As far as cannabis use by teens goes, the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control is positive. As the Washington Post reported and elsewhere, an increase in access to marijuana has not led an increase in its abuse. This bolsters the findings of an older study which came to much the same conclusion. What’s more, the declines in both abuse and dependency were most dramatic in teens and young adults.
Does this mean that more teens are using cannabis, but using it responsibly? Apparently not: Cannabis legalization in Washington State hasn’t led to a noticeable increase in its use by teenagers.
Opponents of legalization warn that the expected drop in cannabis prices over the next few years, coupled with its increased visibility and public acceptance, will lead to an increase in teen use. That hasn’t yet been shown to be the case, but we’re keeping a keen eye on data as it emerges.
Cannabis and the Developing Brain
Keeping teens away from cannabis is more than a legal issue, it’s a health and well-being concern as well. Many researchers and clinicians warn that cannabis has serious negative effects on teenagers’ developing brains. The risks are magnified by the fact that, developmentally, teens may be drawn to a greater impulse towards risk-taking, one heightened by the intense peer pressure adolescents often face.
It may be coincidence, but the decrease in cannabis abuse by teens correlates with the overall decline in tobacco use of the last few deacdes. As of 2016, cigarette use by teenagers was at historic lows.
Broader Trends in Cannabis
Even more encouraging, the statistically flat or declining teen cannabis use isn’t limited to Washington State. In Colorado, which voted to legalize all cannabis in the same year, teen use has dropped even more dramatically, while adult use has increased. This would appear to validate the theories of legalization advocates, who feel that maintaining an above-ground, well-regulated industry is the best way to keep control over access to minors.
Cannabis policy is in its infancy, and it’s too early to make predictions based on a few years of data. But for the moment, there are strong indications that legal marijuana and teen use are affecting each other positively. By and large, teenagers are choosing to wait longer before trying cannabis. Further, when they do try it, they’re showing fewer signs of dependence and abuse. That’s good news for all of us who share the mission of making access to cannabis safe and fun.