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Marijuana Decriminalization: Effect on Use in Teenagers

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Back in 2012, when citizens in the states of Washington and Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana use, critics predicted doom and gloom. People who see marijuana as a gateway to harder drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine were convinced things would go haywire. Legal pot would mean easier access for everyone, not just the adults old enough to buy it.

Critics were sure the youth of America – at least the youth in Washington and Colorado – would become a mad pack of ravenous weed-heads, and that the easing of laws in those two states would be a tacit endorsement of recreational marijuana use for the rest of the country, and sooner than later, rates of marijuana use would rise.

And since marijuana is a gateway drug, an increase in the use of hard drugs would follow soon thereafter.

That hasn’t happened.

What did happen – according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) – was the opposite.

Teens Lead the Way

 The 2016 NSDUH survey was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) during the year of 2016 and released on September 7th, 2017. It contained data collected in 2016 and compared it to data from previous years. Legalization advocates and critics alike eagerly awaited the results of this nationwide survey because they felt it would give them hard data to either confirm their position or refute arguments against it. Legislation passed in 2012 was fully implemented by 2014 – enough time to see results on the state and national levels. By 2016, both parties reasoned, the legalized marijuana would have had plenty of time to spread across state lines, as would the negative consequences predicted by critics. After all, we don’t have customs or contraband checkpoints at our state borders.

But here’s the thing. When the report came out, the numbers showed something unexpected: teenage marijuana use went down, while use for other age groups went up. That’s right: in this instance, the teenagers proved to be the more prudent and responsible group.

Nationwide Data

Check the evidence here.

Marijuana use…

  • Increased for people age 18-25.
  • Increased for people 26 and older.
  • Decreased for people age 12-17.

There’s more:

  • General illicit drug use stayed statistically the same across all age groups.
  • Heroin use for people age 12-17 decreased.
  • Cocaine use for people age 12-17
  • Methamphetamine use for people age 12-17 decreased.

What all this means is that when the states of Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014, the world didn’t end. Legalization didn’t lead to a nationwide increase in marijuana use for adolescents. Instead, it led to small increases in marijuana use in adults. And if we take the data from the from the 2016 NSDUH at face value, it didn’t even lead to an increase in marijuana use for adolescents in Washington and Colorado. Despite the results of the survey, it’s possible to find news articles that contradict this information. For example, you can read this article, which claims marijuana use in Colorado increased after legalization, and privately-funded studies like this one here, which highlights elevated adolescent marijuana use in Colorado as compared to the rest of the country.

However, neither the news article nor the private study present data that contradicts the 2016 NSDUH. They work diligently to spin the data, but the numbers are there: the dire predictions simply did not materialize. You can review the state-by-state data from the NSDUH here, and compare it to the information in the articles, if you’re curious and like numbers.

You don’t have to take our word for it.

Future Implications

We don’t have a policy position on marijuana legalization. What we do have is a position on harm reduction: we’re for it. We support evidence-based approaches that help our children live healthy and fulfilling lives. The evidence from the 2016 NSDUH tells us legalization – so far – has not triggered a nationwide marijuana epidemic. We’re waiting to see if the trend continues. We wonder if the example set by Portugal, a country that decriminalized all drugs in 2001 in favor of a policy dissuasion and treatment, might serve as an object lesson in how to deal with drug use and abuse in our country.

We know the problem is vast and complex.

There is no magic bullet.

In the words of Dr. Raul Goulao, the chief architect of Portugal’s decriminalization plan,

“It’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization itself and the positive tendencies we’ve seen…It’s a total package. The biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to seek professional help without fear.”

Would a move away from punitive drug policies encourage more people to seek help, as it has in Portugal? We realize it’s a controversial topic. We also realize we’ve strayed from a narrow discussion of teen marijuana use in Washington and Colorado. And yes: we jumped to a broad discussion about drug decriminalization, but the evidence is hard to ignore. It says their approach is working. Considering the evidence, the example of Portugal merits our consideration at most, and a conversation at least. We know we can have a conversation about how to help our kids in the future: there’s nothing controversial about that.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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