Anti-pot lawmakers and lobbyists often tout the dangers that recreational cannabis legalization could pose for children and teens. But research shows that marijuana use among kids hasn’t changed much in states that have already legalized the drug for adults. So is there anything to the hype?
Only a handful of months ago, as the Cannabis Regulation Act was being debated in headlines and government Zoom meetings, the pearl-clutchers came out of the woodwork to cry foul. They were worried that recreational cannabis would lead to drugged driving, crime and a slew of other social problems. Most of their fears were dismissed by advocates, but many community members are still worried about how legalization could affect their kids.
In May, following the passage of the CRA, Public Information Officer for the DEA El Paso Division Carlos Briano told reporters with Border Report that more New Mexican teens will start using cannabis now that it has been legalized for adults. “We believe the legalization of recreational marijuana will increase the availability and accessibility to the youth of New Mexico and the parts of Texas that border the state, including El Paso,” he said.
NM Teens Already At Risk
The pandemic has had incredibly detrimental effects on teens and children, despite the fact that they are much less likely to develop dangerous complications from COVID-19 than adults. School closures, social distancing measures and government health restrictions have taken a toll on their mental health.
According to the CDC, mental health visits to U.S. emergency rooms by adolescents between 12 and 17 increased by 31 percent between March and October last year, compared to 2019. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found a major spike in childhood obesity during the pandemic. Another study from the same journal found higher rates of suicidal ideation among teens in 2020 than the previous year. More teens also attempted suicide in 2020 than 2019.
In New Mexico teen suicide rates were among some of the highest in the nation before the pandemic even struck—nearly double the national average, according to the CDC. These issues have been exacerbated in the last year by the implementation of some of the harshest pandemic restrictions in the entire nation. Children were forced to abandon any semblance of a satisfactory educational and social outlet during their most formative years, and we’re only starting to see the terrible consequences.
A report released late last year by the state Legislative Finance Committee predicted that overall suicide rates would likely rise during the pandemic, although the data has yet to settle. According to the state, suicides among children under 15 rose by at least 40 percent in 2020 compared to the year before.
Following this especially harsh year for teens in New Mexico, is it any wonder that some community members are looking to protect their children from the potential negative effects of an unknown variable like legalized recreational cannabis?
Weed is Bad For Teens
Using cannabis during the formative years is unarguably risky. While research has revealed that the old concerns over pot causing brain damage were baseless, it appears that using cannabis while still a teen increases the likelihood of developing cannabis abuse disorder as an adult and can even be linked to mental decline in midlife.
According to a controversial 2012 paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers in New Zealand examined data from more than 1,000 individuals over a 38-year period. They found that regular cannabis users who started during their adolescence lost an average of six to eight IQ points by the time they were 38 years old and were unable to regain those points, even if they stopped using the drug. Amazingly, users who waited until they were adults showed no cognitive decline at all.
As with many studies of this sort, the relationship between mental decline and regular cannabis use has not been made clear. It’s possible that marijuana either caused or contributed to the loss of IQ points, but it’s also possible that it correlates in some other way. Nevertheless, it seems like a needless risk since it only appears to affect developing minds, and all they need do is wait a few years before experimenting with the drug.
Does It Matter?
The real question, however, is do these threats pose an existential threat to children in New Mexico, and are they something we really need to worry about? We could also recite terrifying statistical data detailing crocodile attacks all day, but our readers are unlikely to run into the animal while traversing the deserts of the Southwest.
Luckily, we have pioneers that have blazed a trail before us when it comes to legalizing recreational cannabis for adults. Our neighbor Colorado, residents of which have enjoyed a legal cannabis market for seven years, found in a survey of teens that they were reporting less use of cannabis, alcohol or tobacco products during the pandemic than the previous year. This is a bit of a shock, since a study published only weeks ago in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence showed that, despite less access to drugs during lockdowns, teen drug use in the U.S. did not change significantly over the pandemic.
Even the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics has challenged the idea that legalization puts teens at risk. In late May the agency analyzed surveys of high school students taken between 2009 and 2019. The federal researchers found that there was “no measurable difference” in the percentage of high school students who reported using the drug in the past 30 days.
It was by no means the only study to come to that conclusion. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released a report last year that found youth marijuana use had “not significantly changed since legalization.”
And that’s great news for New Mexicans. Perhaps we can actually have our cake and eat it too—for once.