Sprinkled into most debates over adult-use cannabis legalization is the perceived threat that it might pose to impressionable children. With increased ease of access, goes the conventional thought, kids are more likely to start using marijuana at an early age. But science has shown that this just isn’t true.
Adult-use cannabis has been legal in some parts of the country for nearly a decade, and trends surrounding the drug are becoming much more clear. It might seem strange, but as ease of access and cultural acceptance around cannabis increase, teen use appears to drop in response.
Science Supports Advocates
Last month a study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) from 1993 to 2019. The data came from 10 states that legalized adult-use or medical cannabis during that time and offered glimpses into before- and after-legalization comparisons. The study was partially funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The researchers found that adult-use cannabis laws had no effect on teen cannabis use. “The overall association between [recreational marijuana law] adoption and marijuana use among adolescents was statistically indistinguishable from zero,” wrote the authors. When it came to medical cannabis, the numbers were even more encouraging. States with medical marijuana programs were associated with a 6 percent decrease in the odds of current marijuana use and a 7 percent decrease in the odds of frequent marijuana use.
“Consistent with estimates from prior studies, there was little evidence that [recreational marijuana laws] or [medical marijuana laws] encourage youth marijuana use,” wrote the researchers. They also said that more data is needed for a fuller picture of what’s happening. “As more post-legalization data become available, researchers will be able to draw firmer conclusions about the relationship between RMLs and adolescent marijuana use.”
But much has been studied already. In May the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report that found “no measurable difference” in the percentage of high school students from 2009 to 2019 who reported using cannabis at least once in the past 30 days. The report also found no changes in teens’ self-reported access to the drug over that decade.
In November a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found that states with legalized adult-use cannabis have seen dramatic drops in the number of teens admitted to treatment for cannabis use disorder. Oddly, the agency did not find a significant change in states where marijuana had only been approved for medical use. “All 12 states in the high mean admissions rate class sustained admissions declines,” the authors wrote. “Whatever the causes of the observed patterns,” the report concludes, “this research suggests that a precipitous national decline in adolescent treatment admissions, particularly in states legalizing recreational marijuana use, is occurring simultaneously within a period of increased permissiveness, decreasing perception of harm and increasing adult use.”
Last December the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released its yearly Monitoring the Future report. It found that marijuana consumption among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders “did not significantly change in any of the three grades for lifetime use, past 12-month use, past 30-day use, and daily use from 2019 to 2020.”
Last year Deputy Coordinator for the White House’s National Marijuana Initiative Dale Quigley expressed some confusion about the unexpected dips in youth marijuana use while speaking to North Dakota lawmakers. “For some reason, the use rate among this age bracket is going down,” he said. “We’re not 100 percent sure why it’s going down. It’s a good thing that it’s going down, but we don’t understand why.”
And during an interview on the Psychoactive podcast in August, NIDA Director Nora Volkow said that, while she expected youth cannabis use to increase in states where adult-use marijuana has been legalized, “Overall, it hasn’t.”
The reason behind this counterintuitive response from teens might be as simple as the universal teenage drive to rebel. When taboos around cannabis are lifted, and it’s openly used by even the most mundane in society, the excitement and luster of using an illicit drug to illustrate your rebellious streak seems to fade away.
Striking out against the rules and dogmas of our parents and society is a natural part of growing up. One of the most defining features of a healthy, independent individual is the ability to say “No.” People learn this ability in adolescence and begin forming their sense of independence by testing boundaries.
One striking feature of this phase in growing up is that kids, unsurprisingly—and, perhaps, irritatingly—target the very things parents and other authority figures care most about for inversion. Experts say this subconscious behavior is largely a symbolic display for teens’ families and peers—a testament that they are indeed separate individuals, distinguishable from their parents.
So, when late night talk show hosts make jokes about “doobies” and their parents chuckle and nudge each other, it’s only natural that teens are going to be less interested in using cannabis as a method of distinguishing themselves from their parents.
This theory is supported by a 2019 CDC study that appeared in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “Although the relationship between legal adult recreational use and youth use is not well understood,” wrote the authors, “two possible reasons for the observed decline in youth use include reduction of illicit market supply through competition and loss of novelty appeal among youths.”
In other words: Pot is no longer cool. Thank goodness. Cannabis use among teens and adolescents has been tied to developmental problems and can be a triggering stressor for a number of psychological disorders. Keeping growing minds away from cannabis is absolutely necessary as we move forward with cannabis reform. (Just don’t tell the kids that or they’ll break their necks to get at it, of course.)