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[Study] Teen Substance Use is Down Where Cannabis is Legal



Teen Substance Use is Down After Cannabis Legalization

One more prohibitionist argument against the legalization of cannabis has bit the dust. “What about the children?” the chorus of misinformed parents, police, and health officials used to cry out against calls for reform of cannabis laws. Now, studies confirm what activists have been chanting for years – legalization will only make it safer for children. According to a study recently published in the JAMA Network-Pediatrics journal, teen substance use is down overall – not just for cannabis use – in states where adult use is legal.

Does Legalization Make Teens More Likely to Smoke Weed? Studies Say No

The recently published study was conducted by researchers at Boston College and the University of Maryland using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys collected from 2011-2021. The data included answers from almost 900,000 teens in ninth and tenth grade across 47 different states during that decade, during which legalization spread quickly.

At the time the study was published, 24 states and Washington D.C. had legalized adult consumption, and 18 had fully functioning retail sales. This is a massive advancement from the handful of adult-use markets in operation when studies first started appearing on this subject after Colorado and Washington first legalized recreational use.

In the past, I’ve covered this topic extensively, with every study coming to the same conclusion – legalization of cannabis does not lead to increased teen use. In fact, it not only has the opposite effect on teen cannabis use but also the rates of teens using other substances like alcohol, e-cigarettes, and harder drugs like cocaine or LSD.

Teen Cannabis Continues to Drop Post-Legalization

This latest study only further reinforces these previous ones – finding that legalization of retail sales “was associated with 28% higher odds of zero cannabis use.” Interestingly, they found that each year after legalization, there was an 8% higher odds that teens wouldn’t try smoking weed at all.

Along with this significant (and continuously dropping) rate of teen cannabis use, the study also found retail cannabis sales correlated to a significantly reduced rate of e-cigarette and alcohol use among teens. Interestingly, legalization didn’t seem to affect the rates of teen tobacco (cigarette) use.

However, it’s also worth noting that they also found teens who do consume cannabis are doing so more frequently than in the past.

Why Would Legalizing Weed Reduce Teen Substance Use?

Some people might still be wondering how legalizing cannabis could lead to a reduction in teen use rather than a sharp increase. Advocates for cannabis legalization have been making these points for years – and these studies are only validating a rhetoric that’s been said for decades – regulation, normalization, and education are the keys to reducing rates of teen substance use.

Dispensaries Reduce Illegal Access to Cannabis

The most obvious way that legalization could be leading to reduced teen substance use is simply by limiting their access in the first place. Think about it – how many drug dealers are going to check ID or worry about whether they’re selling to a teen? On the other hand, how many dispensaries are willing to risk their coveted license for selling to a minor?

By eliminating the black market, you’ve severely restricted the ways that anyone underage is able to access the substance in the first place.

There’s Reduced Curiosity When It’s Normalized

Another reason teens might not be as inclined to try cannabis after legalization is because it’s no longer something that they’re being told not to do at all – just not yet. They’re also more likely to have seen a family member or family friend who’s consumed an edible or smoked a joint, maybe even talked to them about the experience.

Normalizing cannabis makes it easier for teens to move past – whereas before, we were telling teens how harmful it was, unintentionally enticing them to find out for themselves (and most were rolling their eyes when they realized how harmful it wasn’t…).

Education Leaves Teens Empowered to Say Not Yet

Just like normalizing, educating teens on the truth about cannabis – not airing horribly inaccurate propaganda “Just Say No” commercials – which often leaves teens less curious and less likely to want to try cannabis (or any substance for that matter).

When you approach teens with data, science, and facts about the cannabis plant and how it works with our bodies it makes them feel respected, like you're trusting them to make an informed decision rather than treating them like a child and explicitly telling them they can't have something. Taking this approach will also leave teens feeling empowered to make decisions that are better for them in the present, knowing they will have the chance to try it later on in life if they decide to.

Reduced Teen Use is a Benefit of Cannabis Legalization

This study is only the most recent of many since legalization started taking hold in the United States and around the world. As more states, territories, and countries move to legalize adult consumption of cannabis, it’s nice to see one anti-legalization argument come to such a clear end. With so much evidence to back it up, with so many studies over the last decade alone coming to the same conclusion, there’s no denying that legalizing cannabis doesn’t increase rates of teen cannabis use. Rather, it’s turning out that legalization is actually a beneficial way to reduce teen substance use rates over time.

Julia Granowicz-Johnson is a founder, copywriter, and journalism blogger with a passion for the cannabis plant and its uses in personal wellness and medicine. She advocates for the reform of cannabis laws around the globe through her writing and aims to bring attention to the negative impacts that prohibition has left in its wake.