Opponents of cannabis legalization have been predicting a big up-take in teen consumption in states where recreational use is permitted. Their logic: legalization legitimizes use, and teens who’d wavered when it was against the law to partake, will see no reason not to join their consuming friends when it’s legal.

Well, it seems that the alarmists were wrong. Studies have shown the very opposite to be true: in almost every state that’s legalized cannabis for more than two years, data shows a small but perceptible drop in teen consumption, continuing a trend in stable/declining teen use that’s been evident for almost a decade.

There’s no firm explanation for this trend — it could be that as forbidden fruit, illegal cannabis was more desirable to teens, and normalization has made it less alluring; it could be a generational shift — Millennials are big consumers of cannabis, so Gen Z may just be prone to something different; or it might be that Gen Z kids are a bit more pragmatic, and less experimental.

Whatever the reason, it’s good news for parents, and good news for those who want to end national prohibition — with hard evidence that legalization doesn’t lead to more teen usage, opposition will wane.

There’s no data yet on Massachusetts teen consumption, but we’d expect, as normalization of cannabis proceeds here, we’ll see similar teen usage trends as Washington, Colorado and California.

National Trends

Authors of a peer-reviewed study, “Past 15-Year Trends in Adolescent Marijuana Use: Differences by Race/Ethnicity and Sex” drew this conclusion about teen cannabis use across the country: “Despite considerable changes in state marijuana policies over the past 15 years, marijuana use among high school students has largely declined.”

The National Institute on Drug Use and Abuse reported in December 2018 “Daily, past-month, past-year, and lifetime marijuana use declined among 8th graders and remains unchanged among 10th and 12th graders compared to five years ago, despite the changing state marijuana laws during this time period. Past-year use of marijuana reached its lowest levels in more than two decades among 8th and 10th graders in 2016 and has since remained stable.

While teen use has been stable or declining, use by middle age and older adults has actually been growing.  The Washington Post reports “Federal data showed that marijuana use among middle-aged Americans surpassed teen use several years ago, which underscores a point that often gets lost in contemporary debate about marijuana legalization: While debates about marijuana use tend to focus on the drug’s effects on young people, marijuana use is becoming more concentrated among older Americans.

Washington State

The Seattle Times reports a decline in teen use since legalization in Washington State: “Cannabis use by teenagers in Washington has dropped since the drug was legalized in 2012, according to a study published Wednesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study comprised two years of data, from 2014-2016, and showed decreases in marijuana usage by teens in middle- and high school. Use among 8th graders dropped from 9.8 to 7.3 percent over that period and among 10th graders, use fell from 19.8 to 17.8 percent. Use by seniors remained flat at just over one in four students, 26.7 percent, during that period, according the study.”

California

Northern California newspaper The Press Democrat reports similar declines in California: “Despite the dawn of a new era legalizing recreational use of cannabis by adults, marijuana use among middle and high school students continued to decline in California in 2016 and 2017, a new state-funded health survey shows. Only 4.2 percent of seventh graders reported ever using marijuana, according to the 16th biennial California Healthy Kids Survey, which was conducted between 2015 and 2017 and released this week. Researchers found a marked decline in teen marijuana use over the past four years, from 10 percent of seventh grade students in the 2011-13 survey to 7.9 percent in 2013-15. Similar declines were found among students in grades nine and 11.”

Colorado

The Boulder, CO Weekly reports teen usage in the state since legalization has dropped, for the first time, below the national average: “Older Americans, not teens, are using more cannabis. In fact, the number of Colorado teens who admit to using cannabis has dropped below the national average for the first time ever. On Tuesday, state public health researchers released a report detailing the results of a youth cannabis education and prevention campaign called High Costs. The study surveyed more than 500 teens in Denver and about 56,000 young people statewide. According to the report, the national average of teens who admit to using cannabis is at 20 percent. In Colorado, it’s only 19 percent with four out of five Colorado youth saying that they do not use cannabis. The study also reveals that 59 percent of Colorado teens have never consumed cannabis.”

Oregon

Oregon Live, the online version of the state’s leading newspaper, The Oregonian, reports “The numbers have changed barely at all since legalization, according to the voluntary Oregon Healthy Teens survey conducted by the Oregon Health Authority every odd-numbered year. The state data match results from the national survey on drug use. “We haven’t seen a big increase in youth use like we worried we would,” said Julia Dilley, an epidemiologist for Multnomah County and the Oregon Health Department. “However, it is too early to tell in the long term what the effects are for youth.” 

Alaska

Alaska is the one state that showed a very slight increase in teen cannabis consumption. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Teen use in Alaska increased from 18.44 percent to 18.86 percent (an increase of 2.3%)

Sources

National Institute of Health: “Past 15-Year Trends in Adolescent Marijuana Use: Differences by Race/Ethnicity and Sex”

Washington Post: “Marijuana use is now as common among baby boomers as it is among teens, federal data shows”

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens: “Teens Drug Use Is Lower Than Ever (Mostly)

Boulder Weekly: “Cannabis use drops among Colorado teens”

Washington Post: “Following marijuana legalization, teen drug use is down in Colorado”

Seattle Times: “Washington state teens are toking less since cannabis was legalized, new study says”

The Press Democrat: “Marijuana use declines among California teens”

Cato Institute: “Dose of Reality: The Effect of State Marijuana Legalizations”

Marijuana Moments: “Teen Marijuana Use Down In Most Legalized States, Federal Data Says”

The Oregonian: “What we’ve learned from three years of legal marijuana”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “2017 NSDUH Annual National Report”