Marijuana Use by Teens Down in Colorado

Marijuana use by teens continues to decline in Colorado since the proliferation of retail medical-pot stores, but the state's health department would rather focus on perceptions over reality.

A news release put out today by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is headlined, "New survey documents youth marijuana use, need for prevention." And the article begins with the concern-inducing statement, "Fewer high school students in Colorado think using marijuana is risky."

Reading on, though, it's obvious the real news from the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is that marijuana use among teens in one of the country's most marijuana-friendly states is falling.

See also: -Teen Use of Marijuana Decreased Since Passage of Arizona Medical-Pot Law, Study Shows

The CDPHE news release states:

"One in five Colorado high school students used marijuana in the past 30 days, and more than a third have used it at some point in their lives, the survey shows. Thirty-day marijuana use fell from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013, and lifetime use declined from 39 percent to 37 percent during the same two years. None of the declines shown in the preliminary data represent a statistically significant drop in rates."

Mark Salley, spokesman for the agency, tells Phoenix New Times that the department chose to go with the perception-of-risk angle, rather than the pot-use-is-falling angle, in order to tie the survey results to a youth marijuana-prevention campaign the agency intends to launch next month. He admits the disclaimer about how the declines aren't statistically significant applies equally to the stat about perception of risk.

Yet, as Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Colorado points out, the same survey also made headlines in 2012 for showing a decline in teen marijuana use in Colorado.

Over the four years, then, during a time when more than 100,000 Coloradans were legally buying medical-marijuana at stores that outnumbered Starbucks outlets, teen marijuana use fell from 24.8 percent in 2009 to 20 percent in 2013.

Nationwide surveys show that pot use among teens is up a few points. Meaning that regulation and legalization -- at the least -- aren't leading to an increase of kids using marijuana in Colorado.

"How many times do marijuana prohibition supporters need to be proven wrong before they stop declaring our marijuana laws are increasing teen use?" Tvert said in a written statement. "They were wrong when they said regulating medical marijuana would do it, and they were wrong when they doubled down and said making marijuana legal for adults would do it."

UPDATE 4:14 p.m.: After we published this article, we talked some more with the Colorado health agency about the statistics and margin of error.

Another spokesman told us that the agency does not see any trends from 2009 to 2013 from those survey statistics -- no decrease, but no increase, either. The reason is that the margin of error for the 2009 to 2011 numbers was high enough to shed doubt on whether by 2013 an actual decrease occurred.

Look at that caveat from the other end, though, and critics' predictions of an increase in teen use don't seem to have come true.

We thought the issue required some more insight, and were able to get the CDPHE's executive director, Dr. Larry Wolk, on the phone for a few minutes. As the above-mentioned news release states, Wolk admits he's worried that the "normalization of marijuana use in Colorado could lead more young people to try it."

About one in five Colorado teens use marijuana now, the survey shows.

"It's logical to think that we now have legalized marijuana, there should be concern for increased use among teens," Wolk says.

The historical marijuana retail shops for adults 21 and older in Colorado didn't open until January 1 of this year, so the youth survey results don't apply to the legalization of so-called recreational use of marijuana. However, Wolk agrees that since 2009, when medical-pot retail stores began exploding across the state to serve tens of thousands of legal users, his agency's statistics confirm that "we didn't see an appreciable increase among teens in that period of time."

Judging by Colorado's experience, there's little reason to believe that Arizona's medical-marijuana program will mean more teens, in general, using pot.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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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.
Contact: Ray Stern