New study finds legalization contributes to increase in teen use of cannabis

Jul 23, 2020

As the cannabis community continues to brave the new world in light of COVID-19, the legalization debate continues to rage on, especially in the United States, where federal laws impede state-level legalization efforts. One of the more significant arguments made by anti-legalization activists is that cannabis will have an untoward effect on today’s youth. New research appears to give credence to those sentiments.

According to a new longitudinal study from the University of Washington and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, when states legalize cannabis, teens are more likely to use it. Researchers studied more than 230 teenagers from Washington State as part of their research.

With cannabis being legal in Washington for almost a decade now, researchers had plenty of data with which to work. The study itself sought to learn how the legalization of cannabis affected both teen use and perception of harms. 

What they found was interesting. According to the study, around 11 percent of teens at the age of 15 who were born before 2000 reported using cannabis over the past year. Only five percent of 15-year-olds born after 2000 said the same thing. In other words, teen cannabis use had been moving on a downward trend.

However, researchers did find that teens who were 15 after the legalization of cannabis in Washington were much more likely to say they used cannabis in the past 12 months. "When we think about marijuana legalization, a worry is that underage use may go up," said Jennifer Bailey, the lead author, according to the New Zealand Herald. "Early use and heavy use during adolescence can have a lot of negative health consequences, then and later in life, so we don't want teen use to be going up."

Anti-legalization groups have grabbed onto the study as another bit of proof in their crusade against cannabis.

“The findings of this study are the canary in the coal mine. These data, coupled with recent national survey data from the federal government, directly undercut Big Pot’s narrative that legalization has not resulted in a subsequent rise in youth use,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama Administration in a statement

“We have long pointed out that valid and trustworthy benchmark surveys have shown increases in use among youth. Ask any school superintendent in Colorado and they’ll tell you they have been warning of this fact for years. Given the risks of serious mental health issues youth use can bring about, this is a concerning development,” he continued.

Researchers noted that this study differed from others, which looked at similar trends, arguing that they had more long term data to explore. The study reviewed youth cannabis users who were born between 1989 and 2002.

According to the study, legalization "may be working against hard-won, population-level decreases [in cannabis use].” They also recommended that states that wish to legalize cannabis "should devote increased resources to evidence-based prevention programming."

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