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Legal Medical Marijuana Does Not Increase Teen Use

Every time another state has an election to address medical marijuana legislation, the opposition rolls out a lot of the same tired and scientifically disproven arguments. It’s a gateway drug! It increases crime! More teens will use it! 

It reeks of absurd Reefer Madness rhetoric, but saying so will not get us anywhere. The only way to handle baseless emotional claims like these is through patient, dispassionate, and steadfast adherence to data.

So let’s debunk this last one, as it is usually the most emotionally charged argument.

Why Teen Use Is Such An Issue

To be clear, this isn’t meant to demean the concern of those who do not agree with ending cannabis prohibition. Teenagers are at a very important stage of neural development and cannabis use can have very real negative long-term effects on their cognitive development.

The arguments put forth by those opposed to cannabis are often genuinely concerned for their loved ones and the children in their communities. Their opinions, however, are based on emotional reactions, not in real data.

Let’s look at what real research says about the impact cannabis legalization has on teen usage.

The Most Extensive Survey of Marijuana Use Ever Conducted

In the largest study of cannabis consumption ever conducted in the United States, researchers at Columbia University looked at survey data obtained over a 24 year period in 48 states. In total, over a million adolescents participated, making this by far the largest scale and most definitive dataset available.

The most interesting part of this dataset is that it spans the time periods of medical and recreational legalization in many states. It gives us an opportunity to objectively evaluate what, if any effect legalization has had on marijuana use among teens.

So what did they find?

In the words of Dr. Deborah Hasin, one of the authors of the study, “We showed no hint of an increase at all after the laws were passed.”

Legalization had zero effect on teen marijuana use.

Newer Data Confirms Findings

Another 2016 survey study done in Washington state, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, confirmed the findings, showing rates of cannabis use unchanged over the last decade. In fact, cannabis was reported to be more difficult to find since legalization.

The results seem so counterintuitive. How could greater accessibility decrease use?

Perhaps it’s simple teen psychology.

As Krista Lisdahl, Director of Brain Imaging and Neuropsychology Lab and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee notes, “The one way to make things less interesting to teens is to have adults think it’s cool.”

Put another way, legalization and cannabis consumption may actually be more effective in preventing teen use than prohibition.

Moving Towards a Data-Driven Policy

“It’s nice to have a scientifically rigorous study to guide policy,” remarked Dr. Kevin Hill, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard.

Armed with real data, perhaps we can approach the conversation of cannabis prohibition more rationally, and de-escalate the hyperbolic, emotionally charged rhetoric. Perhaps we can forge a policy that embraces our right to choose.

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