Cannabis Use and Youth: Why Teens Smoke Less In Marijuana Legal States

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While more and more states are riding the wave of marijuana legalization – for medicinal or recreational purposes, or both – the talk about the repercussions is still tagging along. As expected, one of the major concerns is the possibility of increased teen use. Danger and warnings are accompanied by pleas to ʽthink of the childrenʼ, but it seems that none of it is truly justified.

Founded Concerns, Unfounded Fears

There are still many that are worried that legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, even only a medical one will lead to an increase in its use among teens since it could make it seem less harmful and provide much easier access. These can be easily classified as unfounded fears, but the concerns may be founded ones. The fact that even the smallest amounts of marijuana can have a negative effect on the still-evolving brains of teenagers is enough to turn this question into a pressing concern. But the goal is not to spread fear – what is truly important and pressing in this matter is to truly understand what effect legalization policies have on teen use. The parents are the first ones who should get informed about this.

Navigating the talk about marijuana with their kids has already been difficult for a large number of parents, and legalization may seem only to increase that difficulty. But if you look at the wave of legalization as a change, then it’s obvious that the way they talk with their kids should also change. The key is in a two-way dialogue that sticks to the facts, without cheap scare tactics. So let’s take a look at the facts.

The Research Across 16 Years And 45 States

The main thing that has made the above-mentioned fears unfounded is the research published in the American Journal of Drug And Alcohol Abuse. This research has a pretty large scope since the data has been collected across 45 different states during the period between 1999 and the end of 2015 and it included 861,082 teens who were a part of CDC’s Youth Risk Behaviour Surveys. Additionally, data has also been gathered from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-conducted bi-yearly pool which tracks activities like alcohol and drug consumption among American teens.

It’s important to know what has been happening during those 16 years regarding marijuana laws. First of all, marijuana decriminalization law has been enacted in 11 states. The details vary across these states, but what all they have in common is that the use wasn’t totally legalized – the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana were removed or lessened. Medical marijuana policies were enacted in 18 states, legalizing the plant for legitimate medical purposes. That leaves us with 25 states in which cannabis was not allowed for medical purposes and it was still criminalized. The researchers took all this into consideration in order to compare the impact of these different laws on teen smoking.

It turned out that teens actually consumed less weed in states that have legalized medical marijuana. These states had 1.1 percent lower rates of cannabis use among the teens compared to the ones where medical cannabis remains illegal. However, this difference of just over 1 percentage was more pronounced when certain groups of teens are in question. The greater decrease in the smoking rates was noted in some subgroups – 3.9 percent in black teens and 2.7 percent in Hispanic ones. It’s also important to note that with each year a state had a medical marijuana law on the books, the marijuana use among its teens declined more.

When states with decriminalization policies are in question, the shift in use was much smaller. There was only a small decrease in the rates of teens from Hispanic backgrounds and 14 year-olds who smoked. There was also a slight increase in the prevalence of smoking in white teenagers.

Of course, teen marijuana use from state to state varied widely, from an average of nearly 28 percent in Vermont to 8.6 percent in Utah. In order to calculate the probability (the risk, so to say) of teen marijuana use despite these interstate differences, the researchers employed a statistical model and actual reported teen usage in each state over the study period. They’ve ended up with the probability of 18.9 percent where medical marijuana was legal, while that probability was 20 percent in other states.

Most Likely Conclusions

Clearly, the effect was opposite to the fears posed in the beginning. While the researchers weren’t able to exactly pinpoint the cause, they were able to make some educated guesses. It’s clear that the teen’s perception of the potential harm of marijuana use has actually increased after the legalization of medical marijuana. This is probably due to the fact that they’ve started looking at marijuana as a prescription medicine which has potential side effects. Also, with marijuana laws becoming more lenient parents are increasing the supervision over their children, while some of them have realized that they need to change the way they talk to them about drug abuse. Today, when medical marijuana use policies are present in 32 states it’s time for more research, but positive results are clearly on the horizon.

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