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Feb 20, 2023
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Federal Study Dispels Myth That Legalization Increases Youth Cannabis Use

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A recent analysis published by the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that youth cannabis consumption does not rise after states enact legalization. According to the analysis, the impact of policy change on adolescent cannabis consumption is “statistically indistinguishable from zero.” 

The implementation of regulated cannabis models appears to reduce marijuana use among adolescents, based on specific measures. Anti-cannabis lobbyists may be surprised to learn about the federal study’s findings, with prohibitionists arguing that cannabis legalization encourages younger consumer behavior.

The analysis examined federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey data published between the years 1993-2019 in 10 medical or adult-use states. It expands upon existing studies on the repercussions of cannabis reform on youth consumption, many of which gleaned similar findings.

Researchers learned that recreational cannabis legalization “was not associated with current marijuana use or frequent marijuana use.” Additionally, “Medical marijuana law (MML) adoption was associated with a 6% decrease in the odds of current marijuana use and a 7% decrease in the odds of frequent marijuana use.”

Partially funded by a federal National Institutes of Health grant, the study into youth cannabis use also discovered that consumption plummeted in states where adult-use legalization had been enacted for two years or more. As of 2019, 10 U.S. states had legalized cannabis for adult-use purposes.

“Consistent with estimates from prior studies, there was little evidence that RMLs or MMLs encourage youth marijuana use,” wrote the researchers. “As more post-legalization data become available, researchers will be able to draw firmer conclusions about the relationship between RMLs and adolescent marijuana use.”

Youth Cannabis Consumption Trend Did Not Surprise Advocates

The study researchers did not explicitly explain why more youths are steering clear of cannabis in legal states. On the other hand, they did emphasize that the trend does not surprise lobbyists, many of whom have long argued that approving sales in a regulated environment would deter youths from accessing cannabis via illegal markets.

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“This study provides additional evidence that legalizing and regulating cannabis does not result in increased rates of use among teens. In fact, it suggests that cannabis legalization laws might be decreasing teen use,” Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said during an interview with Marijuana Moment.

“That makes sense because legal cannabis businesses are required to strictly check the IDs of their customers. The unregulated market, which prohibitionists are effectively trying to sustain, lacks such protections,” he added.

Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Nora Volkow told reporters during a recent interview that, despite her trepidation about the potentially negative consequences of legalization, it has not influenced youths to use more cannabis. While voicing her opinion on Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann’s podcast, Volkow said that she was “expecting the use of marijuana among adolescents would go up” when states enacted cannabis legalization but acknowledged that “overall, it hasn’t.” 

Previous Reports Mirror JAMA Study Findings

Various organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, have raised concerns regarding legalization and its impact on youth marijuana use. Nonetheless, past research supports the JAMA Network Open study’s findings. For example, the prohibitionist narrative was disputed in a federal report that was published in May 2021. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) highlighted data on youth surveys of high school students between the years 2009 and 2019. 

“No measurable difference” was observed in the percentage of 9th-12th grade students who reported using cannabis at least once within the last month. The report pulled data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. It also found that access was stable during that time period, with no major changes in the percentage of youth who claimed to have been sold, offered, or gifted illegal narcotics on school grounds during the previous month.

What’s more, a Monitoring the Future Report released in late 2020 found that cannabis consumption among adolescents “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 2019-2020.” Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the annual drug use survey of eighth, 10th and 12th grade students was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

An earlier analysis that was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that marijuana consumption among high school students sank during the height of state-legal recreational cannabis legalization. The organization notes that 37% of U.S. high school students reported lifetime use of marijuana in 2019 and 22% reported use in the past 30 days.

Findings published in the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) revealed “no change” in the rate of current cannabis consumption among high school students from 2009-2019. Conversely, when the data was examined using a quadratic change model, lifetime marijuana consumption was reduced during the same time period.

Bethan Rose is a cannabis advocate, writer and traveler with no permanent address. Currently based in Bali, she can usually be found curating cannabis content on her hammock.



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