New Study Shows Surprising Results Regarding Marijuana Use Among Teens

Some major concerns are going up in smoke.

Teenage marijuana use declined dramatically between 2002 and 2013, according to new research, shedding doubt on the concern that legalization will increase the number of users,. 

The study, published by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, found that over 12 years, marijuana-related disorders among teens aged 12 to 17 years old declined by 24 percent. The data was collected from more than 216,000 adolescents across all 50 states.

The researchers also asked the teens about their use of marijuana in the last 12 months. Between 2002 and 2013, the usage rates fell by 10 percent. Over the same period of time, 10 states legalized medical marijuana, 13 relaxed laws around pot use, and both Colorado and Washington made the drug completely legal, according to The Washington Post.

Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told A Plus that it's reasonable to assume legalization of substances like alcohol and tobacco — and the how they were used less frequently afterward — could be a preview of what would happen if we legalized marijuana. 

"Americans' overall consumption of these substances [alcohol and tobacco], and young people's use in particular, now stands at historic lows," Armentano said. "These results have not been achieved by imposing blanket criminalization upon society, but rather by regulation and public education."

While adult use of marijuana doubled between 2001 and 2012, and teen lows for marijuana use came in the early nineties, it is true that this study aligns with a few others. One published in Current Opinion of Psychology found "there is no conclusive evidence to show that policies in favor of medical and recreational cannabis use increase uptake by young people." Another, in the International Journal of Drug Policy, found that prevalence of marijuana use does not increase after the passing of medical marijuana laws. 

But the scientific community remains somewhat divided. The Annals of Epidemiology, for instance, found that marijuana use amongst teens was higher in states with medical marijuana laws, though they conceded the reasons were unclear.  

According to Armentano, this latest study is in line with almost a dozen other scientific papers that all indicate legalization does not create an uptick in usage. Washington University's study is the first of its kind to examine "marijuana use disorders" in teens, such as dependence on the drug or problems with relationships and school because of frequent use.

The findings do show that amongst teens marijuana-related disorders have declined substantially in the last decade. The fact that this has happened while states across the country are legalizing marijuana, and has even happened inside the states that are legalizing marijuana, throws a wrench into many critics' claims that legalizing pot would be a disaster for American youth.

Perhaps most significant in the study is the finding that marijuana use is declining in correlation with a decline in overall youth behavioral problems. The study suggests that general improvements in the mental health of teens are the best way to keep them from using drugs like marijuana — legalization does not have much of an effect.

"Those of us opining in favor of regulating the production and sale of cannabis do so with the understanding that such regulations will better limit youth use and access," Armentano said. "Like the use of any potentially mood-altering substance, cannabis use ought to be designated for adults only."

Cover photo: Nick Starichenko / Shutterstock.