Teenage Marijuana Use Falling in Colorado, Lower Than National Average | Westword
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Marijuana Use Among High-Schoolers Decreasing in Colorado, Lower Than National Average

Dabbing potent products and overall use are both in decline, but THC vaping among high schoolers is increasing.
According to national data from 2021, about 16 percent of high schoolers admitted to marijuana use within the past thirty days.
According to national data from 2021, about 16 percent of high schoolers admitted to marijuana use within the past thirty days. Brandon Johnson
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Marijuana use among Colorado high-schoolers has decreased in recent years, and the decline is even more significant looking back over the last decade, according to data released by the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

The CDPHE's Healthy Kids Colorado Survey has provided information about youth marijuana use in Colorado since 2013, the year after recreational marijuana was legalized in this state (and a year before recreational sales began). In the first year marijuana questions were included, 19.7 percent of Colorado's high-schoolers admitted to marijuana use within the past thirty days. By 2023, that number had shrunk to 12.8 percent, according to the survey.

Released once every two years, the Healthy Kids Survey shows that high school marijuana use within the past thirty days saw an initial spike in 2015, when teens admitting to use within the past month totaled 21.2 percent. There has been a steady decline in that category since, according to the CDPHE, with the 2021 survey dropping to 13.3 percent.

According to national data in 2021 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 16 percent of high-schoolers admitted to marijuana use within the past thirty days.

"We are extremely pleased to see the rate of current cannabis use among Colorado high school students continues to decline and remains lower than the national average," Chuck Smith, board president of cannabis industry group Colorado Leads, says in a statement. "Significantly fewer high school students report cannabis is easy to get today compared to the years preceding legal adult sales, which suggests our system is working as intended with regard to preventing youth access. Colorado continues to be proof that regulating cannabis works,"

In Denver, the state's largest city and its cannabis industry capital, 11.9 percent of high-schoolers admitted to marijuana use within the past month, which is lower than the statewide average but slightly up from 11 percent in 2021. According to the Denver Department of Excise & Licenses, which oversees the city's marijuana policy office, a bump was expected.

"We were very happy to see that dramatic historical drop [in 2021]," Excise & Licenses communication director Eric Escudero says in an email. "But [we] assumed that the drop was at least partially because many youth were schooling from home during the pandemic and not around peers, which was why the dramatic decrease occurred. We were bracing for a massive surge today in youth who said they used marijuana in Denver. And it did not happen."

According to the Healthy Kids Survey, a little over 10 percent of Colorado teenagers said they used marijuana more often during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

Escudero points to a handful of education campaigns funded by local marijuana taxes and organized by the City of Denver in which high-schoolers are encouraged to learn more about the effects and risks of youth marijuana use. The city's most successful campaign, High Costs, has tried to reach kids where they spend most of their time, he says.

"Since the campaign launched in late 2017, the content the city creates in the form of videos and posters in Denver schools and recreational centers has been viewed an estimated 287 million times," Escudero notes. "The city creates content and then buys ad time on places where kids often frequent, such as YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, video game websites, digital music platforms where they listen to music, etc."


Dabbing Among Colorado Teenagers

Use of potent extracted products among teenagers admitting to marijuana use essentially doubled from 2015 to 2021, according to past Healthy Kids Survey data, reaching a high of 49.2 percent.

The rate of dabbing among Colorado teenagers significantly decreased by 2023, however: Marijuana-using teenagers who dabbed THC products dropped to 31.2 percent last year.

Dabbing and potent THC products have become a controversial topic at legislatures in states that have approved or are considering legal marijuana. In 2021, Colorado health professionals declared a state of emergency in youth mental health, listing marijuana as one of several contributing factors to increases in mental illness and suicides among young people. Most of these concentrated products are consumed by electronic and manual vaporization, also known as dabbing, and have been shown to impact developing brains in people 25 and under.
click to enlarge Man takes a hash dab
Dabbing, or the vaporizing of extracted THC over high heat, is declining among Colorado high-schoolers.
Jacqueline Collins
Colorado lawmakers passed a wide-ranging bill in 2021, House Bill 21-1317, adding restrictions to marijuana concentrate sales and approving teenage medical marijuana patients; lax rules were cited as contributing factors to youth use by proponents. Medical marijuana patients and advocates fought against the bill, arguing that it could hurt the state's most vulnerable and homebound patients who depend on potent THC products.

One Chance to Grow Up, an organization that pushes for legal marijuana guardrails and discouraging youth use, praised HB 1317 in a statement about the new CDPHE data. But the group also points out that THC vaping among teens is still increasing as a preferred consumption method.

"One Chance is pleased to see that the state health department reported there was not a statistically significant change in overall 30 day youth marijuana use statistics. HB21-1317, passed by the legislature, placed critical guardrails on the ability for high schoolers to access THC by tightening the rules for a recommendation from a provider. Additionally, the bill called for a dramatically reduced purchase limit available for this age cohort," One Chance to Grow Up executive director Henny Lasley says in an emailed statement.

"We were also pleased that 'dabbing concentrates' by the traditional method of intake dropped as well, as this was the goal of the legislation," the statement continues. "However, vaping of THC rose from 2021-2023, which is concerning and indicates a shift to commercialized vaporizers of THC concentrate. These products are much more discreet, contain flavorings that are attractive to kids (and for this reason are no longer allowed with nicotine), which is a high schooler's dream."

Smith of Colorado Leads and Escudero both say that dispensary ID checks have played a part in decreasing teenage use. According to the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, Colorado marijuana dispensaries have passed underage sales checks at a rate of 95 percent or higher since 2019, with an average of around 99 percent since July 2022 — but the MED has also been criticized for inconsistent methods in compliance checks.

"While these latest figures are promising," Smith says, we recognize we must remain vigilant and continue to work with regulators and other stakeholders to maintain this promising trend. Colorado’s legal cannabis industry is committed to preventing youth access, which is reflected in its exceptionally high compliance rates for checking IDs and refusing sales to minors."

Alcohol and Drug Use Among Colorado Teenagers

According to the CDPHE, 20.5 percent of high school students admitted to drinking alcohol at least once within the past thirty days, while 3.8 percent said they had tried intoxicating hemp products such as Delta-8 THC.

Last year was the first time the survey included a question about psychedelics use, with 3.8 percent of high schoolers saying they had tried psychedelics before. Colorado decriminalized certain natural psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms and DMT, in late 2022.

Just 1.5 percent of Colorado high schoolers admitted to using cocaine, according to the survey, while 1.2 percent admitted to using ecstasy. Less than 1 percent of Colorado high schoolers said they had tried fentanyl, heroin, kratom or methamphetamines in 2023, according to the survey results.

A little over 3 percent of high schoolers admitted to smoking a cigarette within the last thirty days, the survey shows, while 8.7 percent said they had used an electronic vapor product in the same span.
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