Legalization’s effect on teen use hazy at best

teen cannabis use
Haven High School Black Student Union protest Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop (Genna Martin, seattlepi.com)


Despite statements to the contrary, we have seen no conclusive evidence that legalizing recreational marijuana is associated with increased youth use. But the fact is, we don’t yet know all the facts. As a nation, we have just embarked on this grand experiment. And we are just at the beginning of gathering the important data points that will help us draw conclusions.

Here’s what we know: There are three separate youth surveys that each attempts to gauge teenage use of marijuana.

teen use of marijuana

teen use of marijuana

These surveys measure:

  • if teens have ever used marijuana (top sets of lines in Figure 1)
  • if teens currently use marijuana (bottom sets of lines in Figure 1)
  • if teens have used marijuana in the past 30 days (Figure 2).

None of them has shown a statistically significant increase or decrease among Colorado teenagers since the legalization of marijuana. Drug-related high school suspensions have also shown no discernible trend line. In short, we have no data yet that indicate an increase in youth usage post-legalization.

However, there are a lot of questions we don’t know the answers to: How will commercialization, normalization, and availability of marijuana affect youth use patterns in the long run? Studies show that teenagers now see marijuana as less harmful than previous generations. But does that mean they will use marijuana more, or will the forbidden fruit mystique fade away? Will industry find ways to market to youth and will government address such efforts effectively?

Teenagers are intensely complex people. Anybody who claims they know which way this will go is fooling you. And anybody who tells you they have definitive evidence of the answer is flat out lying to you.

These data, however, are often used by advocates on both sides to advance their causes. Here are competing quotes about youth use after one of the national surveys was released last year.

From the anti-legalization advocate, Kevin Sabet: “Once again, Colorado takes the prize for leading the nation in underage pot use…It’s no surprise, given that the pot industry is pouring millions of dollars a year into promoting the use of their addictive products.”

The answer to “will legalization increase youth use?” is “it depends.”

From pro-legalization advocate Mason Tvert: “Survey after survey is finding little change in rates of teen marijuana use despite big changes in marijuana laws around the nation. Colorado and Washington are dispelling the myth that regulating marijuana for adult use will somehow cause an increase in use among adolescents. Legalization opponents will surely continue to make dire predictions about teens, so lawmakers and voters need to be informed about these government reports that invalidate them.”

Obviously these are both advocates, and you would expect them to frame the issue in the light most beneficial to their point of view. And to be fair to Mason, his interpretation puts the effect of legalization into clearer context. But both Mason and Kevin advance conclusions and causal claims that we believe are premature.

We should be patient with these data, and not always try to read them in ways that tells us whether legalization is good or bad or simply in the light we prefer. Instead, we should see what works and what doesn’t, and adjust policy accordingly. We should be honest about lags in data reporting and that adult-use marijuana has only been on sale in a few states for a short amount of time.

To sum up, how legalization happens is as important as if legalization happens. We do know prohibition has not stopped teen use, and indeed, teens have reported high access to pot since the ’70s. The answer to “will legalization increase youth use?” is “it depends.”

We saw how tobacco commercialization run amok led to massive increases in youth use. It took huge government and legal intervention to arrive at where we are today: at historic lows for youth consumption of tobacco.

Remaining vigilant post-legalization to ensure we have the right guardrails will go a long way to ensuring that legalization does not increase youth use and can hopefully decrease it. Advocates use the data to determine if legalization is a good idea. But most of us should be using the data to figure out what we can be doing better.

[Andrew Freedman is the former Director of Marijuana Coordination for the state of Colorado; and a principle at the consulting firm, Freedman & Koski, IncJohn Hudak, Co-founder and senior advisor to Freedman & Koski, Inc. whose mission is to ensure the successful and responsible implementation of legalization across the U.S.]