Teens and Cannabis: Studies Show Legal Marijuana Doesn’t Increase Underage Use

May 16, 2018

One of the most repeated and—from our perspective—most valid concerns regarding cannabis legalization is the correlation between legal marijuana and teen use. But, when you really break it down...is there one? Does cannabis legalization invariably lead to increased visibility, increased access, and increased use among teenagers?

Here's a head-turner for you: states that have legalized cannabis haven’t seen significant spikes in underage use. That’s right; legal marijuana and teen use don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

In fact, some six years after Colorado and Washington stepped boldly into recreational cannabis acceptance, teen marijuana use is at a 20-year low. Did weed-legal states just get lucky, or is this a happy side effect of legal—and thus, from teens’ perspective—boring cannabis?

Cannabis and the Developing Brain

While the research community isn’t quite unanimous—is it ever?—about the potential effects of cannabis on the developing brain, most studies conclude that teens should avoid marijuana use except in medically advisable cases (such as for the treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy).

Unfortunately, as every parent knows, adolescence is typically a time of increased risk-taking, individuation from parents and caretakers, and general experimentation and exposure to peer pressure. So with cannabis’ sudden availability, keeping legal marijuana and teen use separate becomes an even more pressing concern.

It may be coincidence, but the decrease in cannabis abuse by teens correlates with the overall decline in tobacco use observed over several decades now. As of 2016, cigarette use by teenagers was at a historic low.

The Current State of Legal Marijuana and Teen Use

Given the developmental implications, the drop in teen cannabis use in Colorado—which, by the way, also correlates to declines in heroin and alcohol use—is uncomplicatedly great news. But that doesn’t explain what’s behind those numbers. Can we say with certainty that it’s because of the availability of legal cannabis?

To a degree, Colorado’s drop in teen use dovetails with the national trend. Data shows that, nationwide, no states experienced a significant uptick in adolescent use. But of those that saw the greatest drop, only two—Colorado and Oregon—have legalized cannabis for recreational use. This might suggest that, in fact, the legal status of cannabis isn’t to thank for the drop in teen use at all. That’s difficult to answer without more granular data tracked over a longer period of time.

Some researchers suggest that the shrinking of the black market brought on by legalization is one factor; as cannabis becomes increasingly available—and prices continue to fall—it’s simply no longer profitable for unlicensed dealers to stay in business. Others cite improvements in drug education and substance-abuse prevention for kids in Colorado. That could well be a factor, although we’re beholden to point out that, since legalization, adult use in Colorado—particularly among those 26 and older—rose significantly, from 16.80% to 19.91%.

Teens and Marijuana: A Generational Shift?

At the end of the day, this trend may simply be generational: As researchers at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work found, teenagers increasingly disapprove of marijuana use.

Whether or not this trend will persist as cannabis finds greater national acceptance is anyone’s guess. We remain firmly convinced that cannabis should be legal for all uses here in the United States. The strict licensing and controls inherent to an aboveboard, well-regulated industry means that, in those cases in which teens do try to purchase cannabis, responsible dispensaries are best positioned to gently—but firmly—cut off access to minors. Fortunately, the current data shows that increasingly, teens are taking care of that issue by themselves.

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