Despite fears that legalization could encourage more children to experiment with cannabis, consumption by US middle- and high-school students is currently at its lowest point since the 1990s. That’s according to results of an annual report released Tuesday by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The results refute arguments made by cannabis opponents across the country this election season that legalization would lead to a higher rate of use among minors. If anything, the opposite appears to be happening.
According to survey results, the percentage of US eighth graders who consumed cannabis in the past year dropped 2.4 percent in the past year, from 11.8 percent in 2015 to 9.4 percent in 2016. The current rate is the lowest recorded in the annual survey since 1993.
Consumption rates among older students held relatively steady. Tenth and 12th graders reported rates of past-year, past-month, and daily consumption that were on par with last year. The perception of risk—how dangerous cannabis consumption is seen to be among students—also remained stable.
Younger students report that it’s now harder to get their hands on cannabis than a year ago. The percentage of eighth and 10th grade students who said obtaining cannabis is “easy” or “very easy” fell over the past year, while it went up slightly among 12th graders.
Critics of the drug war seized on the report as an indication of a point they’ve been making for decades: Regulated markets work better at keeping cannabis out of the hands of teens than do prohibitionist policies of the past.
“The best way to prevent teen marijuana use is education and regulation, not arresting responsible adult consumers and depriving sick people of medical marijuana,” said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It is time to adopt marijuana policies that are based on evidence instead of fear.”
While it might seem counterintuitive that legalization would lead to lower teen use, Tom Angell, a longtime activist who founded advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said it’s “just common sense.”
“Under legalization, businesses have every incentive to follow the rules and make sure their customers are of legal age lest they lose their lucrative licenses,” he said. “Conversely, black market dealers don’t care about the IDs in their customer’s wallets; they only care about the money in there.”
The NIDA survey comes on the heels of an annual DEA report that found declines in teen consumption, illegal smuggling, and cannabis-related prosecution. It’s the latest in a body of research that indicates legalization doesn’t, in fact, increase teen use rates.
There are good reasons to want to curb cannabis use among minors. While the long-term health effects of cannabis consumption remain largely unstudied, researchers worry THC can interfere with the development of young people’s brains.
Since 2012, eight states and the nation’s capital have adopted laws that make marijuana legal for adult use. Since 1996, 28 states have adopted laws that make marijuana legal for medical patients whose doctors recommend it.
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