As medical marijuana continues its path towards legalization, one of the most common worries is that relaxed drug laws will end up preying on our most vulnerable population, unleashing droves of weed-crazed youths into the streets. But the notion that legalized medical pot encourages youngsters to try the drug may be as misguided as the one that claims pot has no medical benefits at all, new research shows.
In fact, the data published Monday in the journal Lancet Psychiatry show that in states with legalized medical marijuana laws, there was little to no change in the number of young people who tried the drug after the law passed.
“Our findings, consistent with previous evidence, suggest that passage of state medical marijuana laws does not increase adolescent use of marijuana,” researchers wrote. “Our study findings suggest that the debate over the role of medical marijuana laws in adolescent marijuana use should cease, and that resources should be applied to identifying the factors that do affect risk.”
Funded in part by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, the study looked at data from more than one million eighth graders, high school sophomores and seniors across 48 states, over a 24-year period beginning in 1991. They found that while certain states with medical marijuana had higher rates of marijuana in teens, there was no traceable connection to a spike following a change of law in the 21 contiguous states with medical laws.
Dr. Deborah Hasin, a Columbia University epidemiologist said in a statement that the study was the most conclusive.
“Our findings provide the strongest evidence to date that marijuana use by teenagers does not increase after a state legalizes medical marijuana. Rather, up to now, in the states that passed medical marijuana laws, adolescent marijuana use was already higher than in other states. Because early adolescent use of marijuana can lead to many long-term harmful outcomes, identifying the factors that actually play a role in adolescent use should be a high research priority.”
The new study comes as the latest in a growing body of evidence suggesting that overall, legalizing the drug for medical purposes does not have credible links to higher rates of usage among young people. A 2012 study from the CDC found similar conclusions using a slightly smaller dataset, as well as a 2013 Journal of Adolescent Health study.
“The growing body of research that includes this study suggests that medical marijuana laws do not increase adolescent use, and future decisions that states make about whether or not to enact medical marijuana laws should be at least partly guided by this evidence,” wrote Dr. Kevin Hill of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. “The framework of using a scientific method to challenge what might be ideological beliefs must remain an important driver of future research on marijuana policy.”
As VICE points out, there are evidence-based indications that full-blown recreational legalization of marijuana could lead to increased use among teenagers. But at the same time, marijuana use among young people has been on the rise since 2005, according to the CDC study.