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Autumn 2005
Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group

Use By Teens Declines in States With Medical Marijuana Laws

By Karen O'Keefe and Mitch Earleywine

"The Examination." Saturday Evening Post Cover by Norman Rockwell

Nine years after the passage of the nation’s first state medical marijuana law, California’s Prop. 215, a considerable body of data shows that no state with a medical marijuana law has experienced an increase in youth marijuana use since their law’s enactment. All have reported overall decreases of more than the national average decrease —exceeding 50% in some age groups— strongly suggesting that enactment of state medical marijuana laws does not increase teen marijuana use.

• In California, which has the longest-term, most detailed data available, the number of ninth graders reporting marijuana use in the last 30 days declined by 47% from 1996 (when the state’s medical marijuana law passed) to 2004. An analysis commissioned by the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs found “no evidence supporting that the passage of Proposition 215 increased marijuana use during this period.”

• In Washington state, sixth graders’ current and lifetime marijuana use has dropped by at least 50% since the 1998 enactment of the state’s medical marijuana law. All other surveyed grade levels have seen both lifetime and current marijuana use drop by between 25% and 50%.

• In Hawaii, youth marijuana use has decreased among all surveyed grade levels by as much as 38% since the 2000 passage of the state’s medical marijuana law.

• Data from Maine suggest a modest decline since the 1999 passage of its law. Data from Nevada (whose law was passed in 2000) and Alaska (whose law was passed in 1998) show overall decreases in marijuana use, with a modest increase in a few individual grade levels.

• Data from Oregon (whose law passed in 1998) suggest modest declines in marijuana use among the two grades surveyed in 2004, a slight decrease in lifetime marijuana use among high schoolers, and a tiny increase in current marijuana use among high schoolers. Colorado (whose law passed in 2000) is the only state without an in-depth statewide survey, but the limited data available suggest modest declines in Colorado teens’ marijuana usage as well.

• Vermont and Montana, whose medical marijuana laws were enacted in 2004, have not yet produced statistically valid data covering the period since their laws were passed.

Nationwide, teenage marijuana use has decreased in the nine years since California enacted the country’s first effective medical marijuana law. Overall, the trends in states with medical marijuana laws are slightly more favorable than the trends nationwide.

California, Washington, and Colorado have all seen much greater drops in marijuana usage than have occurred nationwide. Overall, Alaska’s and Hawaii’s trends are also more favorable than nationwide trends, though some individual measures are less favorable. Trends from Maine, Oregon, and Nevada are slightly less favorable than nationwide trends, although use is still down.

When states consider proposals to allow the medical use of marijuana under state law, the concern often arises that such laws might “send the wrong message” and therefore cause an increase in marijuana use among young people. The available evidence strongly suggests that this hypothesis is incorrect and that enactment of state medical marijuana laws has not increased adolescent marijuana use. Consequently, legislators should evaluate medical marijuana proposals based on their own merits —without regard for the speculative and unsupported assertions about the bills sending the “wrong message.”

Methods & Data Sources:
Nearly every state that has enacted a medical marijuana law has conducted surveys on adolescent marijuana use both before and after their medical marijuana laws were enacted. We analyzed publicly available data from all such surveys considered statistically valid by the agencies that performed them.

Since 1996, 10 states —Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington— have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Eight of these were enacted via voter-approved ballot measures, while Hawaii’s and Vermont’s laws were passed by their legislatures. (The District of Columbia passed a similar ballot initiative in 1998, but due to congressional action, the law hasn’t been implemented.)

One argument consistently raised in opposition to such measures is that they “send the wrong message to young people,” encouraging teen drug experimentation. For example, in an October 1996 letter to anti-drug advocates, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Thomas 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 2005, Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) explained his veto of a medical marijuana bill in part by arguing that the measure would “place our children at increased risk of abusing marijuana.” That same month, U.S. Representatives Mark Souder (R-IN) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) raised the “wrong message” concern during a debate on medical marijuana in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1996, the issue of whether these laws would impact teen marijuana use was an open question; both sides made assertions, but neither had concrete data for support. Now, nine years after the passage of the first medical marijuana initiative, a considerable body of data exists. No state with a medical marijuana law has experienced an overall increase in youth marijuana use since the law’s enactment. All have reported overall decreases —in some cases exceeding 50% in specific age groups— strongly suggesting that the enactment of state medical marijuana laws does not increase teen marijuana use.

Karen O’Keefe, esq., is a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. Mitch Earleywine, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology, University at Albany, State University of New York

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