Study Finds No Change in Cannabis Perception Among Youth in Adult-Use States

Opponents of legal, adult-use cannabis have long touted the belief that legalization might encourage more kids and young adults to try the drug than if it remains legal. However, myriad studies are challenging this notion.

One of the latest, a study published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, looked specifically at the attitudes children hold around cannabis and its risks, in legal and illegal adult-use states.

The authors nod to this concern in their abstract, as more states embrace cannabis reform, “that increasing (and state-sanctioned) cannabis acceptance will result in a reduced perception of risk of harm from cannabis among children.” The researchers pressed forward to see whether children in states with recreational cannabis laws (RCLs) had decreased perception of cannabis risks, compared to children in states without RCLs.

The investigators, affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, assessed children’s perceptions of cannabis-related harms over three years, in states with and without legal cannabis markets. 

Using data from the multisite multistate Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study to determine how the perception of cannabis harm among children changes over time. Responses were adjusted for sate-, family- and participant-level clustering and child-level factors, like demographics (sex, race, and socioeconomic status), religiosity, and trait impulsivity.

Ultimately, researchers found that individual, child-level characteristics contributed primarily to young people’s attitudes toward cannabis, rather than state policy. Researchers said, “There was no significant main effect of state RCLs on perceived risk of cannabis use, and no differences in change over time by state RCLs. even after controlling for demographic factors and other risks (e.g., impulsivity) and protective (e.g., religiosity) factors.”

Researchers ultimately concluded that state-level RCLs are not associated with different perceptions of cannabis risk among children, even after controlling for demographics, trait impulsivity, and religiosity. 

Of course, the market is still young, and researchers note, “Future studies could assess how perception of risk from cannabis changes as children and adolescents continue to mature in states with and without RCLs.”

We didn’t necessarily need this study to tell us that the “youth use will increase” argument, in relation to legal cannabis, isn’t sturdy.

A 2021 study, “Association of Marijuana Legalization With Marijuana Use Among US High School Students, 1993-2019,” published in the journal Substance Use and Addiction similarly investigated whether cannabis legalization impacts youth cannabis use. Authors found “there were no significant associations between enactment of RMLs or [medical marijuana laws] and marijuana use among high school students.”

Another report published by the National Center for Education Statistics looked back at the shift in cannabis use between 2009 and 2019. “The overall percentage of students who reported using marijuana at least 1 time during the previous 30 days in 2019 was not measurably different from the percentage in 2009,” authors noted.

Yet another study analyzed an even broader time range, looking at youth data from high schoolers in 46 states, from 1991 to 2015, in relation to medical marijuana laws (MMLs). Similarly, authors found no evidence between the 24-year period of increases in adolescents reporting past 30-day cannabis use, or heavy cannabis use, associated with states enacting MMLs or operational dispensaries.

Some data has even suggested that youth cannabis use has actually taken a dip recently.

In December 2020, the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse shared results of its Monitoring the Future survey, showing that the percentage of students who reported cannabis use, in all forms, within the past year actually decreased significantly for eighth, 10th and 12th grade students in the United States. Among eighth graders, 7.1% reported cannabis use in the past year, compared to 11.4% in 2020; 17.3% of 10th graders reported cannabis use in the past year, compared to 28% in 2020, and 30.5% of 12th graders reported cannabis use in the past year, compared to 35.2% in 2020.

While there is still surely more to learn, especially as the market continues to grow alongside new generations. But the numbers don’t lie, and it might be time for naysayers to think up a new strategy. Despite the changing landscape in plant medicine we are collectively witnessing, it appears the kids are indeed alright.

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