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Youth Cannabis Use Drops in Colorado—Surprise!

Bill Weinberg

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“Colorado teens stubbornly refuse to smoke more weed.”

That’s the smart-alecky headline paired with a chart of youth cannabis use rates that appeared in the Washington Post this week. The story cites Colorado Health Department findings that rates of use among the state’s teenagers are essentially unchanged in the years since the herb was legalized in 2012. Last year’s figures show that 21 percent of Colorado youths had used cannabis in the past 30 days—which is slightly lower than the national average and down from 25 percent in 2009.

The findings are based on a random survey of 17,000 middle and high school students.

“The survey shows marijuana use has not increased since legalization, with four of five high school students continuing to say they don’t use marijuana, even occasionally,” the health department stated.

The findings are a blow to anti-legalization groups, like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM), which have pointed to recent federal surveys showing teen use rates in Colorado are among the highest nationwide. But the new state survey polled a much larger sample of Colorado students than the federal survey, which polled fewer than 400.

“That much larger sample could produce a more accurate estimate,” writes the Post. “A simple reason why legalization may not be having much of an effect on teen marijuana use—adolescents already report that marijuana is widely available. Nationally, roughly 80 percent of 12th graders say that pot is easy to get. The kids who want to smoke weed are probably already doing so—and legalization would do little to change that.”

We’ll venture another reason. Legalizing the stuff eliminates the allure of the forbidden. Adolescents seeking to test the limits of their autonomy or even to break the rules for the sheer thrill of it are less likely to turn to weed if their parents smoke the stuff legally and in the open. We made this point when Colorado announced the findings of its 2014 survey.

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