Anti-marijuana activists have touted for years that legalization would lead to rampant use among minors and would eventually influence them to try hard drugs.
Last week Kevin Sabet, a drug policy pundit and author of the 2013 book Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana, tweeted that “Colorado is now the top state for first-time marijuana users in the country. And young adult use has skyrocketed over the past 10 years. Younger use up since 10 yrs ago. All legalized states show increases.”
But according to federal data, Sabet’s wrong. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual nationwide survey, found that teen marijuana use declined in all but one of the five states that had a legal cannabis policy from 2014 to 2016.
Sales of recreational marijuana topped over $1 billion in Colorado last year, but according to the data in the survey, the number of teens who reported smoking pot there in the past year declined from 18 percent to 16 percent, with a similar drop — 11 percent to 9 percent — in teens reporting they’d smoked in the past month.
Other states saw similar declines or no major change in yearly use, including Washington, D.C. (16 to 13 percent), Oregon (remained at 17 percent), and Washington state (15 to 13.5 percent), while underaged smoking ticked up just barely in Alaska (18.44 to 18.86 percent).
Despite marijuana being readily available to legal buyers in Colorado, a separate government survey found that cannabis use among the 17,000 high-schoolers polled in the state was lower than in the rest of the country.
"These statistics clearly debunk the theory that making marijuana legal for adults will result in more teen use,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in an interview with Scientific American earlier this year.
A 2016 study in the academic journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence echoes the survey’s findings and concludes that states that implemented medical marijuana laws saw “decreases in marijuana and other drugs in early adolescence in those states.”
The forthcoming study examined the relationship between state medical marijuana laws and the use of marijuana, cigarettes, illicit drugs, non-medical use of prescription opioids, amphetamines, and tranquilizers, as well as binge drinking. The study found that among 8th graders, drug use decreased after enactment of marijuana laws.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, "harder" substances. In addition to brain chemistry, social environments also play a big role in addiction.
In an article written earlier this month, the NIDA writes, “People who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs.”
In other words, there isn’t enough evidence to prove that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” or that legalization leads to minors trying marijuana in the first place.
To be fair, it’s also not clear exactly why fewer children try marijuana in states with laws in place. Perhaps the “coolness factor” of trying an illicit substance is lost on them, or perhaps the regulatory and educational mechanisms are accomplishing what they were designed to do. That is, keep marijuana out of the hands of minors.
But what seems to be clear is that the plant isn't the existential threat to young people that so many anti-marijuana politicians make it out to be.
But this isn't enough to deter leaders like Governor Paul LePage from espousing the notion that marijuana use is directly linked to the use of dangerous substances like opiates. LePage had the following to say two months ago when he vetoed the amendment to Maine’s recreational marijuana market measure.
“Outside specific concerns about this bill, I continue to be concerned about expanded legalization of marijuana in Maine,” wrote LePage in a press release. “The dangers of legalizing marijuana and normalizing its use in our society cannot be understated. Maine is now battling a horrific drug epidemic that claims more than one life a day due to overdoses caused by deadly opiates. Sending a message, especially to our young people, that some drugs that are still illegal under federal law are now sanctioned by the state may have unintended and grave consequences.”