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Teen Marijuana Use in Colorado Steeply Declines Following Legalization

New federal survey data suggests anxiety over teens and legal weed is needless.

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It appears that yet another of the fearful predictions of pot prohibitionists—portending a surge of teens taking up toking in states that legalized recreational cannabis—isn’t coming to pass. As data reporter Christopher Ingraham explains at the Washington Post, “The state-level data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [NSDUH] showed that 18.35 percent of Coloradans ages 12 to 17 had used marijuana in the past year in 2014 or 2015, down sharply from 20.81 percent in 2013/2014. (In this survey, years are paired for state-level data to provide larger sample sizes). That works out to roughly a 12 percent drop in marijuana use, year-over-year.” He adds that teen cannabis consumption has fallen each year in most other states during the same period—including newly weed-legal Washington, but the decline there wasn’t substantial.

The NSDUH is a federally funded national survey which interviews roughly 70,000 randomly selected citizens over the age of 12 every year to assess their attitudes and behaviors regarding both legal and illicit substances, and how they’re changing over time. It’s important to remember that while the data is self-reported by interview subjects themselves (meaning we’re trusting their honesty regarding their own habits and feelings on substance use), the survey has previously captured rises in use and increasingly favorable opinions towards substances like cannabis (which it arguably wouldn’t if participants were too afraid to admit their drug use to the federal government). It’s widely considered to be a credible reflection of the nation’s relationship with drugs of all varieties.

Ingraham notes that the latest data also shows a significant increase in cannabis use among Colorado’s adults over the same time period, aligning with a national trend. However the divergence in use habits between adults and adolescents in Colorado is a strong signal that the stringent age and purchasing limits imposed by state regulators are working as intended. Furthermore, if the trend continues and is borne out in other states that followed Colorado’s example, the evidence would ratify the argument of activists for legal cannabis—that youth are actually less likely to access pot when it’s off the streets and in stores instead. While decades of outlandish drug war propaganda and D.A.R.E. PSAs have led many to rightfully conclude that the threat of cannabis to minors has been vastly overstated, there are still good reasons to limit recreational marijuana to legal adults. As Ingraham points out, there are several solid studies that illustrate the potential of cannabis use to have adverse effects on developing brains, including dependency and mental health complications.

While at least a non-increase in usage among teens in states with legal weed would probably be declared a victory by cannabis proponents, what’s remarkable is that teen marijuana use in Colorado is actually decreasing, even though the NSDUH indicates the overall rate of teenage use in the Centennial State is higher than in any other state (as it was even before recreational pot came into the picture, though research from Colorado’s Department of Health disputes this conclusion, asserting that Colorado has an average rate of teenage consumption). Ingraham observes that “a number of factors” are likely at play, possibly including fewer illicit dealers to hit up for bud, and more effective (and rational) drug abuse prevention programs for adolescents. However he notes that the trend aligns with a wider pattern of decreasing teen substance abuse across the country.

So despite the worried rhetoric of those insisting they’re just thinking of the children, the data from Colorado may be the earliest evidence that even with legal weed, the kids are all right.