It’s one of the most common and passionate arguments made by people who oppose marijuana reform: Legalizing the drug will surely lead more teenagers to smoke it.
New data out of the federal government show that argument for what it is – bunk. The 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey, an annual questionnaire from the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found underage cannabis use dropped over the last year.
Teenage drug use continues to decline
That marks the lowest point in a 20-year decline in those numbers, which track use of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs over the preceding year by students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. Teen consumption has been dropping steadily, if slightly, for the past five years, a time during which four states and Washington, D.C., legalized the drug for personal use. Another 33 states allow some form of medical marijuana.
“We are heartened to see that most illicit drug use is not increasing, non-medical use of prescription opioids is decreasing, and there is improvement in alcohol and cigarette use rates, said NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow.
Most promising results in four decades
This year’s results were the most heartening since the study was launched in the 1970s. The numbers fly in the face of claims made by anti-cannabis activists, who say legalization will lead to widespread childhood drug abuse and other wanton behavior.
None of this has come to pass. In fact, the study found that use of hard drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and synthetic drugs, also dropped during 2015.
The survey queried more than 40,000 students in middle and high schools across the United States, both public and private. The massive number of subjects means the statistics are highly credible. That makes them especially useful in tracking how teens use alcohol and drugs. The large sample size also makes the numbers helpful in measuring the effect of marijuana legalization on teenage substance abuse.
Opponents of reform frequently try to sell the trumped-up claim that legal cannabis inevitably means more children will use the drug.
“Relaxing (marijuana) laws clearly leads to more teenage drug use,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican. “It should be intuitively obvious to everyone that if you legalize marijuana for adults, more children will use marijuana because the message that it’s dangerous will be blunted.”
Marijuana legalization drives down teenage use
In fact, the study came to exactly the opposite conclusion. If legalization is having any effect on underage drug use, it is likely driving it down, not up. A combination of more honest information and more liberated decision making may be the driving forces behind the trend, as teens realize toking doesn’t carry the rebellious cachet it once did.
Between 2010 and 2015, the study found, underage marijuana consumption dropped slightly, even as adult use continued to climb. Hard drug use is dropping steadily among teenagers nationwide, as is use of alcohol and cigarettes.
At the same time, the survey reflects a growing awareness among minors that cannabis is the safest of the recreational drugs. A record low percentage of students said they see a great risk of harm in using the drug, even though fewer of them are doing so.
“It’s a bit of a conundrum,” said Lloyd Johnston, lead investigator on the study. Johnston offers an explanation: “Students’ conception of how easy it is to get marijuana has actually been in decline the past few years.”
In other words, teens worry less about risk but also find it harder to get their hands on cannabis. Whether a result of a regulated legal marijuana industry or simply a matter of perception, this could lead fewer students to use.