Legalizing cannabis does not lead to increased teen use

The United States has a lot of fears. We (the collective general population, at least) fear war. We fear poverty. We fear ISIS. We fear the Starbucks holiday cup, for some ridiculous reason. We have a lot of fears around marijuana legalization, too. Many of these fears are overblown, irrational, and planted firmly in slippery slope arguments. One such fear is that legalizing marijuana will make it more accessible to those who aren’t old enough to use it responsibly, leading to increases in teen use.

Federal agency regularly collects data on drug use nationwide

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and Administration (SAMHSA) is the same agency that conducts an annual nationwide survey of substance use habits, and they’ve released a telling new report this week. SAMHSA’s annual survey is targeted toward Americans over the age of 12, so they regularly collect data on teen drug use.

The document published this week emphasizes the differences between the 2012-2013 data and the 2013-2014 data. As you’re probably aware, a lot of progress in legalization was made nationwide between 2012 and 2014. Most notably, the first states passed laws fully legalizing marijuana for recreational use during this time period. This document explores whether this major change led to increased teen use of marijuana.

Data is clear: legalization has not led to increased teen use

The answer to that question is made plain as day by the data reviewed in this document. No, legalization of recreational marijuana did not lead to significant increased teen use of marijuana. The average rate of marijuana use in the past month for teens aged 12 to 17 was 7.15% in 2012-2013 and 7.22% in 2013-2014. Taking into account a 95% confidence interval – a typical measure to account for margins of error in data collection and methodology – this is truly not a significant difference.

At the state level, not one state (or Washington, D.C.) experienced a statistically significant increase in teen marijuana use between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Furthermore, three states (Hawai’i, Ohio, and Rhode Island) actually experienced a decrease in teen marijuana use.

The report also looked at teens’ perceptions of the dangers of marijuana, but it’s not immediately obvious how these two factors interact and affect one another. While the data can certainly be interpreted in different ways, at least one thing is clear: legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes in two states did not lead to a statistically significant increase in teen use of marijuana. There are many more slippery slopes to be navigated, but for the time being, this is one that perhaps we can finally steer clear of.

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