Despite dire warnings that American teenagers would rapidly become hooked on legal marijuana, new federal data show that hasn’t happened.
The numbers, released in September by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, show that teen cannabis use stayed steady in 2014, the first year the drug was available on legal markets in Washington State and Colorado.
The data shows 7.4 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 use cannabis each month. That marks a slight increase, 0.3 percentage points, from 2013, but the agency says the difference is statistically insignificant.
Teen marijuana user significantly lower than a decade ago
Even with the increase, the numbers for 2014 are substantially lower than they were just a decade ago, reflecting the reality that legalization doesn’t lead to increased use. During that decade, four states have legalized marijuana and dozens more have adopted medical cannabis laws.
The numbers are in line with previous studies finding no significant rise in marijuana use by teenagers since the advent of legalization. But the data show that marijuana use has increased notably among adults in the same time frame.
Among adults over age 26, the monthly use rate rose from 5.6 percent in 2013 to 6.6 percent in 2014. Use increased even more among 18-to-25-year-olds, rising from roughly 17 percent in 2013 to nearly 20 percent in 2014.
Data contradicts conservative predictions
The new data flies in the face of apocalyptic predictions by conservative politicians about the effect of legalization. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for one, frequently says reform would “send the wrong message” to kids. The new evidence suggests kids aren’t getting any such message.
Observers say the numbers mean legalization is not leading more youths to light up but could be driving the increase in adult use. The data released in September cover only national trends; statewide statistics will be released later this year.
The results are good news for reform advocates. Marijuana is now legal for personal use in four states: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. It is also allowed in Washington, D.C.
Expect more legalization soon
More states are lining up to legalize in coming years. The candidates for 2016 include California, New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Reform has also started to spread at the federal level.
Even the numbers showing increased adult use can be seen as good news. It means reform is working and adults are taking advantage of a legal drug without driving up teenage cannabis use.
That could have other beneficial consequences down the road. Scientific evidence shows that people who smoke marijuana are usually using it in place of something else – alcohol, for instance. This substitution effect could cut down on drunk driving, drug-fueled violence, and the long-term health consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, among other problems.
Indeed, impaired driving has been on a slight decline in Colorado since legalization took effect. In many other ways, the fact that more grown-ups are toking could in reflect a healthy change in the way America seeks chemical recreation.