Marijuana reform hasn’t led more young people to use the drug, but it has had a dramatic effect on their attitudes toward it.
A new study, published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in July, measured cannabis use among teens and young adults, comparing data from 2002 and 2013.
The study found that just 23 percent of youths ages 18 to 25 disapproved of marijuana use in the most recent survey – compared to 41 percent in 2002. At the same time, actual cannabis use increased by only 2 percent.
The study collected information about drug use from more than 400,000 youngsters. Roughly 100,000 of those were between ages 12 and 14, while another 100,000 were aged 15 to 17 and the remaining 200,000 fell into the 18- to 25-year-old category.
Marijuana use among youths holds steady
“What explains this?” asked Christopher Salas-Wright, an assistant professor at the University of Texas and the study’s lead author. “It is hard to know. The rise of medical marijuana, the relaxing of marijuana use laws, and increased exposure of marijuana as perhaps normative, as well as no longer immoral, may be influencing how young adults feel about others using marijuana, but not impacting beliefs about one’s own use of marijuana.”
That discovery is only good news for cannabis users and reform advocates. It means dire warnings about exploding teenage marijuana use have not come to pass, and it also means young people are making smart distinctions between the drug’s safety and its appropriateness in their lives.
Zachary Pion, a recent graduate of the University of Vermont, said he saw plenty of evidence that marijuana’s image has improved.
“I would say I’ve always had a strong opposition to marijuana usage, but seeing it so freely in my college experience, I became far less sensitized to its usage very quickly, even though it did not impact my own decision to not use the substance,” Pion said.
Changing perceptions of marijuana
Among other realities, changing perceptions toward marijuana will almost certainly translate to further reform down the road. Cannabis is now legal for any use in four states and the District of Columbia; with young voters on board, that number is only likely to grow.
Only adults are allowed to use marijuana in any of these places. Minors under age 21 can only consume it if they have legitimate medical clearance, and then it must usually be a non-intoxicating form of the drug.
Still, it remains relatively easy even for young teenagers to get their hands on cannabis. Advocates say legalization will make it harder, but Salas Wright said he wanted to explore other avenues for preventing underage use. He also wondered how legalization has affected attitudes toward marijuana use.
“Our results may suggest that recent changes in public policy, including the decriminalization, medicalization and legalization of marijuana in cities and states across the country, have not resulted in more use or greater approval of marijuana use among younger adolescents,” he said.