A new study published The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse has found that teens are using marijuana less frequently and are less attracted to it now that it is decriminalized or legalized at the state level.
The data challenges many assumptions about how changing cannabis laws may impact children.
Opponents of legalization often tout scientifically unsupported notions about teen marijuana use.
For example, here in Pennsylvania, representatives from the substance abuse treatment industry, the District Attorneys Association and Pa. Fraternal Order of Police spoke during House committee hearings against allowing marijuana for medical use, in part, because they fear youth use will somehow increase. But the truth is that teen use is declining and that young people may be finding far less allure when cannabis is regulated.
The study, conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, looked at data spanning from 2002 to 2013 in the federal National Home Survey on Drug Use and Health. They found that younger teens aged 12 to 14 years old showed an impressive 25 percent decline in cannabis use from 6 percent in 2002 to 4.5 percent in 2013.
Older teens aged 15 to 17 years old also showed a significant decline in use from 26 percent in 2002 down to 22 percent in 2013.
"Overall, our results suggest that important changes are underway in the perception and use of marijuana among American youth," said lead author Christopher Salas-Wright.
The study also looked at teen attitudes about pot. Researchers found that young people are actually offering a more disapproving attitude about the plant. In the 12-to-14-year-old age group, disapproval of "marijuana-use initiation" (personally or having peers use it for the first time) went up from 74 percent to 79 percent.
Researchers also looked at attitudes and use among young adults aged 18 to 25 which yielded interesting results. The study's authors said in a press release:
"The study identified a downward trend in disapproval of marijuana use among young adults, with 41 percent reporting strong disapproval in 2002 and 23 percent in 2013," the study's authors said in a press release. "However, no corresponding spike in marijuana use was observed within this age group, as results indicate only a modest increase from 30 to 32 percent of young adults reporting marijuana use during the previous year between 2002 and 2013."
So teens and college-age adults aren't flocking to the bongs as scaremongers have warned over the years.
The authors did note that the study looked at national trends and there might be different results in certain localities.
Legalization advocates are not surprised by the outcome of the study.
"These findings belie the myth that society must perpetuate a policy of criminalization and exaggeration in order to dissuade young people from experimenting with cannabis," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML and the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? "It makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is objectively safer than either alcohol, tobacco, or many of the prescription drugs it could replace."
While some may find the data counter-intuitive it makes sense in the real world. Putting teens and adults into handcuffs, holding cells or mandatory drug treatment for cannabis has been a failure, especially when it comes to use rates.
In fact, only as laws have changed away from harsh criminal consequences has use shown any decline.
Lying to kids has also been a very bad move. In 2009, the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania found that government-funded anti-marijuana ads (remember the old eggs-in-the-frying-pan commercials?) actually made teens more likely to want to try a toke.
The takeaway is simple: If we want to protect young people and have them use less marijuana, we can tell them the truth and legalize it for adults. Legislators should take note and be driven by facts, not false fears.