Research gleaned from new Youth Risk Behavior Surveys points to a decrease in adolescent marijuana use in states where pot is now legal. A 2018 analysis of multiple surveys conducted in states where marijuana is legal found a 9% decrease — not an increase — in the likelihood of frequent marijuana use. Additionally, a study of nearly 3,000 research papers on medical marijuana laws in the United States found no evidence that marijuana legalization has contributed to an increase in adolescent use.
Each state regulates its own marijuana usage laws. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states currently have medical marijuana or cannabis programs, and 13 states allow cannabidiol products for medical use. A comprehensive program is defined as:
- No legal penalty for medical marijuana use
- Marijuana access
- Variety of marijuana or products with varying levels of THC
- Variety of ingestion options, including vaporization or extracts
- Programs that are no longer in a trial period
Even where marijuana is legal, there is an age requirement — 21 in most states — for purchase.This means that even when marijuana can be legally purchased for medicinal or recreational use by adults, it is still illegal for people under the age limit to purchase or use it. While legalizing pot could increase access for teens due to people buying it for them or taking it from family members or friends, there is still a legal deterrent in place to inhibit teens from obtaining and ingesting weed.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded in 2017 that cannabis is an effective treatment for ailments like chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and chemotherapy-related illnesses. Marijuana can also be used for the relief of mental health symptoms, such as anxiety.
The survey summaries collected by experts indicate that marijuana use specifically attributed to adolescents has declined since legalization. Teens who smoke pot do so for a variety of reasons, and it may be less likely that teens use pot for medicinal reasons and more likely they use it to alter their mood or to get high. Additionally, the health impacts of recreational marijuana may not be well understood by teens. Regular marijuana use can lead to addiction.
In 2017, the position of the Drug Enforcement Administration was to attempt to actively reduce marijuana use among teens. The agency notes that the dangers of abuse and physical, social and academic consequences are great for underage users. Teens are in a unique stage of development that may impair their ability to assess the risks of using pot.
The decline in marijuana use among teens has been credited by some in the original study to the decreased availability of illicit forms of the drug. Former drug dealers, for example, may have become credible marijuana distributors. Dispensaries legally allowed to sell marijuana don’t need to utilize an illegal market. Because teens are still not of legal age to use these dispensaries, decreased access could be leading them to stop smoking pot or to turn to alternative drugs.
Defining legal use, legal age and methods for enforcing the law remain an issue for many states. As pot research continues, it may be decided that the health benefits outweigh the risks. Until then, decreased use among the teen population may be a positive sign for the future.
Anderson, Mark D. et al. “Association of Marijuana Laws with Teen Marijuana Use.” Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, July 8, 2019. Accessed August 16, 2019.
Drug Enforcement Administration. “Preventing Marijuana Use Among Youth and Young Adults.” 2017. Accessed August 16, 2019.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research.” January 12, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2019.
National Conference of State Legislatures. “State Medical Marijuana Laws.” July 2, 2019. Accessed August 16, 2019.
Sarvet, AL et al. “Medical Marijuana Laws and Adolescent Marijuana Use in the United States: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Addiction, June 2018. Accessed August 16, 2019.