Published on October 16, 2021 by Kristina Willis
Whether we realize it or not, legality often has a significant impact on what society deems acceptable. As more states embrace medical and recreational marijuana laws (MLs), we can realistically expect public perception to adjust accordingly. Though this may be good news for the progressive cannabis movement, there is some concern that it might have a trickle-down effect and negatively impact the nation’s youth.
Fortunately, recent studies reveal that marijuana legalization has not increased cannabis use among teenagers thus far. New laws and regulations have made it harder rather than easier for underaged persons to acquire cannabis products. Nevertheless, parents, educators, and policymakers must remain vigilant to ensure that children are appropriately protected moving forward.
In this article, we explore why legalization is not leading to higher teen use as well as the risk factors to keep an eye on.
Since spiking to record highs in 1977, teen marijuana rates sunk to record lows in the early 1990s before increasing and holding steady throughout the 2000s. Preliminary theories and earlier studies presumed that legalization would increase teen use, but recent and more informed analysis reveals that MLs have not impacted rates of underage cannabis consumption.
Several studies, including one published in July 2021, even found that marijuana use decreased after MLs were implemented. Additionally, data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) revealed an 8% decrease in the likelihood of marijuana use among high school students when looking at data from 1993–2007.
Though the most recent analysis shows a decline in teen marijuana consumption, it is unclear if legalization is directly correlated. To offer an alternate explanation, it is highly possible that trends were already on a downward trajectory and recent statistics merely reflect a continuation of present trends. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why legalization might indirectly decrease teen use.
With licensed dispensaries replacing street dealers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for teens to get their hands on cannabis products. As shown in the bar graph to the right, youth typically obtain cannabis from their peers or other underaged persons. Recreational marijuana laws (RMLs) might make it easier for adults to acquire cannabis, but since youth don’t primarily get it from adults, their typical supply avenues are diminishing.
Not only are licit suppliers more commonplace, but they also require identification and proof of age. With increased regulation and accountability, teens are unable to maneuver around legal barriers as easily. Furthermore, if adults can legally obtain cannabis for personal use, they have less incentive or reasoning to break the law.
Once something becomes legal, it loses its mysterious factor and rebellious appeal. The more research reveals about cannabis, the more it’s perceived as just another therapeutic substance. Thus, teens are less likely to seek it out as a new and exciting experimental activity. Additionally, public health marketing and education programs depicting risks associated with marijuana have likely contributed to decreasing teen rates. Educational reach is the foundation of public health and keeping the nation’s youth safe.
Though marijuana is still the most popular illicit substance next to alcohol, it is no longer considered new or trendy. After increasing dramatically in the mid to late 2000s, underage use leveled out and even declined. On the other hand, more recent technological innovations like e-cigarettes and vaping are trending upwards. Vaping products sometimes contain cannabis, but they also have nicotine and flavor-only options, which may contribute to the apparent decline in teen marijuana use.
Despite current data holding firm, there are still concerns that legalization might increase teen use further down the line. Some analysts hypothesize that we have yet to see the consequences of changing public perception. Moreover, while lifetime and past-year rates have held steady, daily and monthly use has increased. Combined with legalization-informed data, it is possible that while there aren’t more teens trying marijuana for the first time, the ones who are already using may be increasing their frequency.
Though regional data shows that only 3% of adolescent users obtain products from dispensaries, a study found that 8th graders attending schools within five miles of a medical marijuana dispensary are more likely to have recently used marijuana. Regardless of statistics, there are risk factors that may contribute to increased teen rates in the future or decrease the potency of protective factors.
Unsurprisingly, teens are more likely to try a new drug if they underestimate the potential harm. For psychoactive drugs, decreased harm perception predicates an increase in use. In Colorado, youth who believed that regular marijuana use was risky were 76% less likely to use it. As public approval of cannabis goes up, use may as well.
Adolescents in states with MLs report that cannabis is more accessible; however, the validity of whether that is actually true has not been verified. Furthermore, teen use did not decline during the 2020 pandemic. This might suggest that despite the isolation and other pandemic barriers, they could still find access to cannabis—perhaps due to increased rather than decreased availability.
“Last year brought dramatic changes to adolescents’ lives, as many teens remained home with parents and other family members full time. It is striking that despite this monumental shift and teens’ perceived decreases in availability of marijuana and alcohol, usage rates held steady for these substances. This indicates that teens were able to obtain them despite barriers caused by the pandemic and despite not being of age to legally purchase them.”— NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
“Last year brought dramatic changes to adolescents’ lives, as many teens remained home with parents and other family members full time. It is striking that despite this monumental shift and teens’ perceived decreases in availability of marijuana and alcohol, usage rates held steady for these substances. This indicates that teens were able to obtain them despite barriers caused by the pandemic and despite not being of age to legally purchase them.”
Looking at history can tell us that teens are more likely to try something if they believe their peers approve of it. However, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey revealed that while 79% of students think their peers use marijuana, only 19% actually do. This could be considered a hopeful sign. On the other hand, the overwhelming misconception that their peers are using cannabis may encourage some teens to try it when they might not have otherwise. It cannot be understated that youth are less likely to try marijuana when they disapprove of it and believe that their peers do as well.
Parental practices and attitudes are linked to adolescent use, and parental discouragement is a strong protective factor. For instance, children of parents who have a positive attitude toward marijuana use are five times more likely to use marijuana by eighth grade. Talking to teens about cannabis is an essential preventative measure; however, parents are three times more likely to tolerate marijuana use since legalization.
To date, 18 states have approved RMLs, while 36 have passed medical marijuana laws (MMLs). According to fully adjusted models, neither MMLs nor RMLs are associated with increased teen use. However, while RMLs have been connected with an 8% decrease, MMLs have not. Comparatively, MMLs seem to have a statistically insignificant impact (if at all) on teen marijuana use.
The dangers of adolescent marijuana use cannot be underestimated. The human brain isn’t done growing until the mid-20s, and marijuana use can adversely affect areas of the prefrontal cortex that control cognitive processes. Thus, adolescent cannabis use is directly associated with long-term impairment and academic shortcomings. Moreover, starting in your teens doubles the likelihood of addiction and can so much as quintuple with daily use. Consequentially, cannabis is the primary drug of choice among U.S. youth seeking substance use treatment.
Though legalization has not led to increased teen use, research indicates that there are other harmful consequences. For instance, states with MLs have experienced more marijuana-related emergency and urgent care visits as well as motor vehicle accidents and fatalities secondary to cannabis use. As an aside, variance in additional state regulations may also affect impact. For example, states with retail outlet caps and increased regulation may experience less dramatic changes.
Upon exploration, it’s clear that there are numerous positive and negative factors contributing to marijuana legalization’s impact on teen use. Fortunately, the benefits seem to be outweighing any potential drawbacks. Nevertheless—given the dangers of adolescent marijuana use—the urgency of continued surveillance shouldn’t be understated. As more states pass MLs, they must also prioritize marijuana education and awareness.