Legalization Sparks No Significant Increase in Teen Marijuana Use; Prohibitionists Wrong Again

Once again, the facts have gotten in the way of arguments by cannabis prohibitionists.

Echoing the messages of anti-pot warriors like Kevin Sabet, local cannabis critics Sheila Polk and Seth Leibsohn wrote in a widely published op-ed just last month that legalization would lead to more teen use of the drug

"Marijuana use has been fairly level since 2010." — Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator for the Monitoring the Future survey.

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But recent results of two federal surveys show that teen use has remained essentially unchanged since 2010.

As usual, pot prohibitionists cherry-picked the parts of the report they like. As a local anti-legalization group pointed out, "Colorado now leads the nation in marijuana use across all age levels."

Strictly by the numbers, they're correct — but the truth is far more complicated.

About 12.6 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in Colorado reported using marijuana in the past month in the study years 2013 and 2014, according to the latest numbers by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal agency that conducts interviews of tens of thousands of people nationwide. That's higher than any other state for the number of teens reporting recent marijuana use. It's also up from an estimated 11.2 percent the year before.

"Sadly for Colorado’s youth, the data now substantiates the theory that increased availability leads to increased use — despite being assured the contrary by legalization advocates. Arizonans should pay close attention," said Seth Leibsohn, chair of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. "In Colorado, teen marijuana use has not only increased since legalization, it is now the highest in the nation — more than 73 percent higher than the national average."

Washington, which like Colorado also passed a recreational marijuana law in 2014, also experienced a slight increase in teens reporting the use of marijuana, going from 9.8 percent of teens to 10.1. Because the changes in Colorado and Washington were within the margin of error for the survey, they aren't considered statistically significant. 

One reason Colorado now is in the number-one spot is the large decline in teen use in Rhode Island, which had a larger rate of teen use than Colorado but has no legalization laws. In 2013-14, Rhode Island was one of three states, along with Ohio and Hawaii, that experienced a statistically significant decrease in marijuana use while "the remaining 47 states and the District of Columbia experienced no change in past month marijuana use," the government's "short report" on the survey states.

Arizona, which has had medical-marijuana retail stores since November 2012, saw a very small rise in teen use in 2013-14, the SAMHSA results show. Past-month usage by kids ages 12 to 17 went from 8.25 to 8.3. But both of the results represent a decrease from the 2012-13 survey, which shows a reported teen marijuana usage rate of 8.37 percent.

Meanwhile, results released from the 2015 Monitoring the Future survey show that teen use essentially has remained flat nationwide since 2010, the year the Obama administration began a historic cannabis-tolerance policy.

"After rising for several years, the annual prevalence of marijuana has more or less leveled out since about 2010" among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, says an official summary of the results. The University of Michigan, funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, has conducted the survey for 40 years by distributing questionnaires to tens of thousands of schoolchildren nationwide.

Taken together, the two surveys show that the increase in teen use that critics claimed would be the result of legalization laws haven't borne out over all.

The leveling out of teen use mentioned in the Monitoring the Future survey coincides with the year that the Obama administration began its tolerance policy — the year legal marijuana really took off.

Hundreds of retail cannabis shops are now open under state laws, either for medical or recreational use. In Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington, D.C., voters made marijuana legal for all adults 21 and older. Arizona now has more than 85,000 patients and caregivers enrolled in a medical-marijuana program enacted by voters in 2010, and next year may approve a recreational program that would bring in tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue.

In this cannabis-rich environment, the latest surveys show, significantly fewer teens are concerned that marijuana might harm them. "Perceived risk" as a deterrent to pot use, the survey summary notes, has weakened over time. For example, the rate of 12th graders reporting that regular marijuana use is a "great risk" has fallen in the last 10 years from 53 percent to 32 percent. Similar declines have been noted in surveys of 8th and 10th graders.

But the decreased perception of risk hasn't resulted in a corresponding jump in the number of teens using marijuana, the data shows.

New Times asked Leibsohn about the Monitoring the Future results. Melissa DeLaney, spokeswoman for ARDP, wrote back that the survey misses kids who aren't in school because they're using drugs.

"We should actually see these results hold steady or slightly decline over time because kids will use at rates that do not permit regular school attendance," she claimed.

Over time, however, the Monitoring the Future numbers don't always hold steady or decline — sometimes they increase.

Another problem with the theory of a rash of dropouts from increased marijuana tolerance in the United States is that graduation rates have been improving for the last few years and are now at record highs. In Colorado, the dropout rate has been improving every year for several years running. Not only have more students been in school to take the surveys, but the improvements in Colorado have come at a time of monumental change in marijuana laws.

Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator of the MTF survey and Angus Campbell Collegiate Research Professor at the University of Michigan, acknowledges that dropouts typically use drugs, including marijuana, at a heavier rate.

However, he notes that they're a "diminishing portion" of the survey's sampling population, with only 9 percent of high school kids failing to finish, an improvement in recent years from about 15 percent. The MTF survey is considered the "gold standard" of determining adolescent substance abuse rates, he tells New Times, and it shows — as mentioned — that "marijuana use has been fairly level since 2010."

Johnston hadn't seen the latest results of the SAMHSA study, but points out they are already a year out of date, since the study only covers the years 2013 to 2014. On the other hand, "It wouldn't surprise me if use was higher" in Colorado, he says, because teens have increased access to marijuana because of legalization.

"Everybody can make something" out of the numbers, he adds with a chuckle.

Indeed, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy claims another set of numbers is on its side. DeLaney sent New Times a spreadsheet with information from the state of Colorado showing a rise in drug-related suspensions from the 2005-06 school year to now. However, the data shows that the number of suspensions decreased last year. And other data in the spreadsheet shows the opposite of ARDP's point:

* Colorado high school expulsions rose in the 2009-10 school year, then began falling. They're now at a level lower than in 2005. 

* In the 2005-06 school year, 1,996 drug-violation cases were referred to law enforcement in Colorado high schools. That number rose to a high of 2,255 in the 2010-11 school year. Since then, referrals have declined, with only 1,160 reported last year.

As New Times has previously reported, the Arizona Youth Survey — a state study conducted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission — has shown a general decline in teen marijuana usage rates in the past few years.

J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group planning to put a legalization measure on the Arizona ballot next year, says the latest teen-use stats by the federal government show that, once again, critics of legalization are wrong.

"The fears and the lies that have been perpetuated by prohibitionists have never come to fruition and are simply not true," he said.

The campaign has collected more than 125,000 signatures, Holyoak said.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.