When states debate medical marijuana laws, one of the issues sure to come up is whether legalizing marijuana for medical uses sends the wrong message to young people. Does legalizing medical marijuana create an atmosphere of permissiveness regarding marijuana? Does legalizing medical marijuana make it easier for kids to get their hands on dope?
Some of those questions are highly subjective and difficult to answer. One question, though stands out as being straightforward enough to actually study. That question is simply this: Are teenagers more likely to smoke marijuana after a state legalizes medical marijuana than they were before it was legalized in their state?
A study conducted by the Marijuana Policy Project in partnership with a psychology professor from the State University of New York has concluded that teen use of marijuana does not change much when a state legalizes marijuana. If anything, teenage use seems to go down.
In Colorado, the researchers noted that there is really isn’t enough data to reach hard conclusions, but the data they have shows that in 1999, 10.3 percent of 12-17-year-olds reported using marijuana within the month prior to the survey. In 2007-2008, 9.1 percent reported marijuana use in the same time frame. Colorado passed its medical marijuana law in 2000.
As of today, 16 states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws. Of the 13 states studied, only two, Michigan and New Mexico, showed an increase in marijuana among teenagers after passage of the laws. As in Colorado, the change is small enough to be within the margin of error.
Nationwide, the study concluded that teenage marijuana use has gone down since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996.
The study’s authors wrote that all of the data used in the study comes from surveys done by the federal government or the states themselves, so it is unlikely to be rigged by a pro-drug bias on the part of the surveyors.
From the study:
One argument consistently raised in opposition to such measures is that they “send the wrong message to young people” and encourage teen drug experimentation. For example, in an October 1996 letter to anti-drug advocates, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Thomas A. Constantine wrote, “How can we expect our children to reject drugs when some authorities are telling them that illegal drugs should no longer remain illegal, but should be used instead to help the sick? … We cannot afford to send ambivalent messages about drugs.”
Such arguments continue to be raised by opponents of medical marijuana laws. In June 2007, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) explained in her veto statement of a medical marijuana bill, “I am also concerned that this bill would send the wrong message to our youth.”
Similarly, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the Associated Press in September 2010, “I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to our
The study concludes:
Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. has witnessed a well-publicized and sometimes emotional national debate over the medical use of marijuana. Contrary to the fears expressed by opponents of medical marijuana laws, there is no evidence that the enactment of medical marijuana laws in 16 states and the District of Columbia have produced an increase in adolescent marijuana use in those states or nationwide. Instead, data from those states suggest a modest decline nationally and in medical marijuana states overall, with large declines in some age groups in some states. Only two of 13 states with operating medical marijuana programs have experienced an overall increase in youth marijuana use since passing a medical marijuana law, and both of those states have a modest amount of data since the programs are relatively new.
This data trend strongly suggests that the effect of state medical marijuana laws on teen marijuana use has been either neutral or positive. California researchers, who appear to be the only ones to specifically study the issue in the context of a survey of adolescent drug use, found no evidence of a “wrong message” effect. Legislators considering medical marijuana proposals should evaluate the bills on their own merits, without concern for unproven claims that such laws increase teen marijuana use. Opponents of medical marijuana laws should cease making such unsubstantiated claims.