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Why Legalization Won’t Lead Kids to Toke

Conventional wisdom, especially the kind touted by opponents of marijuana reform, says that legalizing pot is a sure way to convince more kids it’s OK to smoke it before they reach 21.

A new study pops that myth. The federal report, released in September by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found underage cannabis use actually declined as states started to legalize the drug.

Adolescent marijuana use and addiction rates dropped steadily over a 12-year period, even as the drug was legalized in four states and the District of Columbia – and even as adult rates climbed. At the same time, teens say it hasn’t become much easier to score cannabis.

A teenage girl smokes a joint

The study examined data about drug abuse among Americans older than 12 between 2002 and 2014. In 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, followed by Oregon, Alaska, and the District in 2014.

More states are expected to legalize in November, most importantly California. And the study gives voters here even more reason to support the idea. Polls show most Californians are already there, with 60 percent saying they plan to vote yes.

The period covered by the report also includes the widespread adoption of medical marijuana, which is now allowed in 25 states. Another 15 permit limited use of a non-intoxicating form of the drug to treat severe epilepsy.

Cannabis use has long been common among American adults, but their consumption rates are rising. The percentage of Americans older than 21 who admit to using the drug within the past month rose from 6.2 percent of adults in 2002 to 8.4 percent in 2014, a 35 percent increase.

Trend: no growth in marijuana use among teens

But researchers noted a curious trend: Every age group surveyed say they’re smoking pot at increasing rates, but not respondents between 12 and 17 years old. Their rates didn’t change much at all, according to the study.

The same generational discrepancies were found among daily or near-daily users, with adult rates climbing sharply while teen rates dropped from 2.4 percent in 2002 to 1.6 percent 12 years later.

Marijuana TeensEven so, youths say it’s safer to use the drug than they once believed but, paradoxically, harder to find it. And rates of cannabis abuse and dependence among respondents aged 18-25 are down sharply, falling 24 percent during the time frame of the study.

Declining addiction rates

Researchers at the CDC say it’s unclear what’s behind the dropping addiction rate, but experts are hopeful it’s being driven by new medial marijuana laws. As patients gain greater access to marijuana strains high in CBD but low in THC, they are able to smoke without getting high; for those who use the drug daily, that can help patients avoid dependence.

“With changes in medical marijuana laws and, in particular, state laws or policies allowing limited access to low percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD), persons who use marijuana daily for medical reasons might be using strains that pose lower risk for dependence or abuse,” the CDC wrote in the report.

So what does all this mean for California stoners? Among other effects, it could give voters one more reason to support legalization at the polls Nov. 8. And if nothing else, the study could make it a bit easier for voters and lawmakers a bit less skittish about the idea in the future.

What do you think: Is it surprising that teenagers are not using marijuana in greater numbers, despite full legalization in four states and Washington, D.C.? Leave a comment below.

About Matt Brooks

Based in San Francisco, Matt is a journalist who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than five years. He provides regular news coverage on and

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