So far, marijuana legalization isn’t having a big effect on the number of teens using pot in Washington state.
That’s the takeaway from a recently released state-run survey of 38,000 high school students in Washington state. Based on the state’s numbers, teen pot use remained relatively flat after Washington voted to legalize marijuana in 2012 and allowed legal pot shops to open in 2014.
Opponents of marijuana legalization have long warned that legalization would lead to more teen pot use. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who runs President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, recently argued, “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot.”
Marijuana use among teens is of particular concern because it’s widely believed that the developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to pot’s detrimental effects. As a recent review of the research by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine noted, “It is during [adolescence and young adulthood] that the neural layers that underlie the development of cognition are most active.” But the National Academies’ review only found “limited evidence” that marijuana use leads to cognitive impairments.
Washington state’s experience shows, however, that legalization may not heighten the risk of teen pot use — at least in its early stages.
That could change. As the marijuana industry grows across the country, it will continue to drive down pot prices and more aggressively market its product — much like the alcohol and tobacco industries have for decades and decades. Drug policy experts warn that this change will lead to more marijuana use across all age groups, but it could take many more years into legalization before this begins to happen.
As Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at New York University’s Marron Institute, often tells me, “The bad risks are mostly long-term. We’re in the situation in which the guy jumped off the Empire State Building, and as he passed the 42nd floor somebody said, ‘How’s it going?’ And he said, ‘So far, so good!’”
When I asked him about the latest Washington data, Kleiman told me, “[I]t’s still too early to judge. Since adolescents can’t buy from the stores, the big impact on them will come as prices fall; that’s only just started to happen, too recently to be reflected in current use statistics.” He added, “Also note that WA, like CO, was starting from a very high baseline, and that legalization largely formalized what was already the case: anyone who wanted to buy cannabis from a store could do so, or have a friend buy for them. Not at all a good indication of what legalization would mean in a state where cannabis had been effectively illegal.”
Kleiman clarified, though, that he’s not too worried about the prevalence of monthly use. He’s more concerned about the prevalence of frequent use, which would gauge how much someone uses marijuana on, say, a daily basis — a much better indicator of overuse and addiction. “That’s harder to measure and is likely to change more slowly over time,” Kleiman said.
Still, for now, the latest survey numbers are good news for Washington’s teens and legalization supporters. It remains to be seen whether they’ll hold up over time.