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Which State Has Seen The Greatest Rise in Pot Use?

Russ Belville

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The new two-year state-level numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health came out last month and, judging by the reaction in the news media, it seems that legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has turned everyone there into bong-toting pot zombies shuffling endlessly in search of strains, STRAAAIIINS!

“Marijuana Use Jumps in Colorado, Making it Second Highest Across US,” declared the International Business Times.

“Colorado stoners storm up US marijuana-user rankings; Washington state use surges 20%,” intones the Associated Press.

But when you look closer at the numbers from the 2012-2013 National Survey on Drug Use & Health (NSDUH), there are some remarkable surprises that most of the news media missed in their hurry to report that legalization increased marijuana use. For analysis, High Times entered all the figures from 2010-2011 and the 2012-2013 NSDUHs into a spreadsheet. We colored the two legal states in dark green shading. Medical marijuana states are shaded light green if they allow home cultivation or are in green text if they do not. States where marijuana is illegal are in red text, like so:

So, for all marijuana users age 12 and older, Colorado jumped from 10.41 percent monthly use to 12.7 percent monthly use, an overall change (delta) of 22 percent; that’s the figure the news media have salivated over. But if we perform the descending sort on delta, we get a stunning surprise…

Of all US states, Georgia had the greatest increase in monthly pot use, almost a 30 percent increase, well above Colorado’s 22 percent. Missouri’s near-20 percent increase was only slightly behind Washington State’s increase of 20.27 percent. There were as many prohibition states in the top ten with double-digit percentage increases (Georgia, Missouri, Utah and Virginia) as medical marijuana states (Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire and Hawaii).

One primary fear of prohibitionists is that legalization will lead to more kids using marijuana. Indeed, looking at the NSDUH numbers for ages 12 to 17 shows that Colorado monthly teen use increased by 6.59 percent and Washington monthly teen use increased by 3.81 percent. But guess what surprises are revealed when we sort by teen monthly use increases…

Of all US states, Florida had the greatest increase in teen monthly use, a change in rate of almost 7 percent. Utah came in 3rd with a 4.49 percent increase and again, there are as many red states in the top ten (Florida, Utah, Tennessee and Louisiana) as there are medical marijuana states (Rhode Island, Maine, New York and Michigan).

What about the college kids? Certainly, legalization for those age 21 means that the college seniors can score marijuana for the 18-year-old freshmen, right? Indeed, Washington monthly use from age 18 to 25 increased 9.04 percent and Colorado use increased 8.36 percent. But, well, you know where we’re going with this…

Missouri actually led the nation in college-age marijuana increase at a whopping 15.74 percent, almost twice the rate of increase compared to Colorado. This time, only two medical marijuana states (Maryland and Maine) made the top ten while six red states (Missouri, Louisiana, Utah, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming) made it, with half of them beating the two legalized states.

Now some media (including HIGH TIMES) have pointed out that Rhode Island, not Colorado or Washington, has the highest overall 12-and-older usage rate at 14.08 percent. But a major factor in Colorado and Washington “storm[ing] up the rankings” is that six of the top ten states saw declines in their monthly marijuana use, as we see sorting by the 2010-2011 figures…

It’s worth noting that aside from Rhode Island, every medical marijuana state in the top ten that allows for home cultivation saw declines in the 12+ monthly marijuana use rate.

Another concern of prohibitionists is the possibility that marijuana from a legal state will leak over the borders into their states. Nebraska was so concerned they have sued Colorado at the Supreme Court over marijuana legalization, with Oklahoma joining in. So, according to NSDUH, how badly has legal Colorado and Washington weed affected their border states?

Six of the seven states that border the legal states are prohibition states and Oklahoma and Nebraska are the last ones that should be suing Colorado, as they are the only two with declines in monthly marijuana use across the board. Nebraska dipped a statistically-negligible 0.73 percent while Oklahoma crashed almost 8 percent. Among the critical teen demographic, monthly marijuana use dropped in all the legal border states but Utah. However, use among voting-age adults is significantly up (greater than the national average) in Utah, Kansas and Idaho.

Should it surprise anyone that allowing adults to legally use marijuana in a state comes with an increase in marijuana use in that state? Or, at least, a greater willingness on the telephone to admit to a stranger representing the federal government that one is partaking in marijuana? Of course not! The real questions are: has the increase in marijuana use led to an increase in social and personal harm? And even if so, has that increase surpassed the social and personal harms of the marijuana prohibition? These are the questions the traditional media fail to ask in their quest for sensationalist headlines that presume any increase in adult marijuana use is a bad thing per se.

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