Legalized Marijuana and Its Effect on Teen Drug Use

One of the cornerstone arguments that opponents against the legalization of medical pot have is that marijuana is a “gateway” drug, opening up the door for users to try harder, more dangerous illegal substances like cocaine or PCP.

In the case of teenagers, who undergo tremendous amounts of peer pressure to use drugs every day—in hallways, cafeterias, and school parking lots—the issue is even more paramount.

The fear that marijuana will lead adolescents to other illegal substances is one the main reasons cannabis remains illegal in most states. But findings from a new study done by three separate university economists have found otherwise.

Drs. Daniel Reese from the University of Denver, Benjamin Hansen from the University of Oregon, and Mark Anderson from Montana State University, released the results of their study last May after in-depth research looking at representative data from the Youth Risky Behavior Survey, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and extensive state records.

The study, called “Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use,” was funded by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IVA), a private, non-profit independent research institution in Bonn, Germany. The company does internationally oriented research about labor markets, and has no ties with the American market or marijuana dispensaries—making its objective, eye-opening findings even more interesting to economists, scientists, and lawmakers around the country.

The researchers chose the period between 1993 and 2009 to analyze because it represented a time when 13 states—including the three states where their universities were located—legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. This way, they were able to get a comprehensive picture of the effect legalizing cannabis had on teen drug use and substance abuse.

The study examined the relationship between the legalization of marijuana and its impacts on school drug use by observing documented cases involving the use of pot at school, whether the respondent was offered marijuana on school property, alcohol use, and cocaine use.

What they discovered was that the legalization of marijuana had absolutely no impact on teen marijuana use, number of offers to smoke pot, alcohol consumption, or cocaine use—“In fact, the data often showed a negative relationship between legalization and marijuana use,” according to Oregon University’s Dr. Hansen.

The researchers also looked at state records of teens who had tested positive for marijuana in drug tests, and confirmed that cannabis legalization did not affect the number of adolescents who tested positive.

In summary of their research, Dr. Anderson of Montana State concluded, “We are confident that marijuana use by teenagers does not increase when a state legalizes medical marijuana.”

And this new data could not come at a more critical time, in light of the widespread debates playing out across the country about the legalization of marijuana.

As of the 2012 November elections, medicinal marijuana has been legalized in 18 states, and similar legislation is pending in 10 others. Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, allowing its citizens 21 or older to carry up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana, in addition to permitting the growth of up to six pot plants.

Although the legalization of cannabis is becoming more standard in state governments, the federal government continues to incriminate local dispensaries, especially those in proximity to a school, park, or playground. The source responsible for this crackdown is the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal officials who believe that legalized cannabis is responsible for increased teen drug use.

In 2011, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research concluded in their annual report, “Monitoring the Future National Results on Adolescent Drug Use,” that marijuana use in 10th and 12th graders increased three years in a row—2009 to 2011—with approximately one in fifteen high school seniors smoking pot at least once a day.

Undeniably, more and more teens are smoking marijuana, but is legalization to blame? Drs. Hansen, Anderson, and Reese say no. They cited the 2011 data from the University of Michigan in their survey, acknowledging that teen drug use is on the rise, but ultimately concluded that legislation had nothing to do with it, and could actually be linked to a reduction of teen drug use.

The issue of drug use among adolescents is an important topic, and this new study appears to suggest that opponents of the legalization of marijuana are casting the blame on the wrong source.

Perhaps the legalization of cannabis will open up the long-shut doors of medicinal marijuana, allowing teens to fully understand the importance of safe and responsible consumption, rather than be underhandedly offered it from their peers in bathroom stalls, down dark alleys, and behind school buildings.

The hope is that legalizing medicinal cannabis will not only offer millions of people medical relief, but promote an open dialogue between parents and teens about the effects of marijuana.

As this new study confirms, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

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