Underage Pot Use Down in Colorado

Programs like D.A.R.E. and the Just Say No campaign might not have kept the nation's youth from smoking pot, but it's possible that legalization could.

According to two recent studies, states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana are seeing a decrease in illegal use by young people. Officials in both Colorado and Washington have reported a decrease in the use of marijuana by underage consumers, and credit increased education about the real effects of the drug, cutting back on the black market, and tight restrictions to enter a regulated dispensary.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment cited this "encouraging trend" in its annual report on marijuana-related health concerns. Not only that, but "among adolescents, past month marijuana use is lower than past month alcohol use."

Mason Tvert, the Denver-based director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, was quick to share the good news. "The state is also reaping the benefits of replacing an underground market with a tightly regulated system," he said in a recent statement. "Marijuana is now being sold in licensed businesses rather than out on the street. It is being properly tested, packaged and labeled, and it is only being sold to adults who show proof of age. The system is working."

Other reports back him up.

Every year since 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse's annual Monitoring the Future survey has asked eighth-grade and tenth-grade students how easy it is to get their hands on marijuana. Last year the responses indicated that getting access to marijuana is more difficult than since the survey started.

Access to marijuana was reportedly down to 34.6 percent for eighth-grade respondents, 2.4 percentage points lower than previous years. Sixty-four percent of tenth-graders said the drug was easy to acquire, and while that percentage may seem high, it's actually the lowest it's ever been, according to a summary of the survey.

In another study commissioned by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, rates of teen marijuana use in Colorado and Washington dropped from 2014 to 2015, the year after both states legalized recreational use of the drug.

The rate of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds who used marijuana dropped 1.43 percentage points the year the drug was first sold legally in the state, the report determined, while the rest of the country only reported a 0.02 percent drop.

“I don’t have an explanation. This is somewhat surprising,” admits Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which commissions the annual survey. “We had predicted based on the changes in legalization, culture in the U.S. as well as decreasing perceptions among teenagers that marijuana was harmful that [accessibility and use] would go up. But it hasn’t gone up."

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Kate McKee Simmons interned at the National Catholic Reporter, was a reporter for the New York Post, and spent a brief stint in Israel learning international reporting before writing for Westword.