Study: No Association Between Rec MJ Laws, Use Among Middle School Youth

Study: No Association Between Rec MJ Laws, Use Among Middle School Youth

A long standing argument against the legalization of cannabis has cited that legal access could lead to an increase in youth cannabis use. As states across the country continue pushing forward with reform measures, research is continually providing insight on just how merited that assertion is in actuality.

Fresh off the heels of a recent study showing the prevalence of delta-8 THC use among high school seniors — a hemp-derived cannabinoid that is widely available outside of the legal cannabis industry and in states with or without legal cannabis programs — some may wonder how many teens are using cannabis in recreational states and whether reform has escalated these trends.

A new study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors looked to investigate how legal cannabis laws have impacted adolescent use and examined lifetime and past 30-day (P30D) cannabis use among middle school-aged adolescents in Nevada versus New Mexico.

It ultimately affirmed what many studies in the past have: Initiating state-licensed cannabis sales is not associated with an increase in cannabis use among young people.

We’re still exploring the impacts of cannabis use, for better or worse, given the limited scope of research on the plant over the last several decades. However, despite the many benefits cannabis and its compounds may offer us, it’s widely accepted that cannabis use during adolescence can be especially impactful on development. 

To examine how adult-use cannabis legalization has influenced adolescent cannabis use, researchers behind the recent study used data from the 2017 and 2019 NV Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the NM Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, state-run surveys for Nevada and New Mexico respectively designed to monitor health behaviors among U.S. students.

Researchers used difference-in-difference analyses to compare behaviors surrounding lifetime and past 30-day use in Nevada and New Mexico during the same period. At the time, Nevada had legal adult-use cannabis sales and New Mexico did not.

According to the analysis, the odds of lifetime and past 30-day use increased in both states during the observed time period, specifically among students who were female, older, non-white or attending a Title 1 school. 

Ultimately, researchers noted that there was “no difference in lifetime and P30D marijuana use by adult-use sales status.” 

Rather, cannabis use in both states followed similar trajectories. Researchers still noted this as a point of concern, given the negative health consequences of cannabis use at an early age, though whether or not cannabis was legal in a given state didn’t appear to be an influencing factor.

“We did not find compelling evidence that implementation of adult-use marijuana sales was associated with an immediate increase in lifetime or P30D marijuana use among middle school youth in Nevada which aligns with previous research,” the study notes.

Indeed, many other studies from the past have come to a similar conclusion: Cannabis reform does not appear to be correlated with an increase in use among young people.

A 2022 policy paper looked broader, reviewing data on consumption among eighth, 10th and 12th grade students, finding that youth consumption either “decreases or remains flat in regulated markets.”

“State legalization of cannabis has not, on average, impacted the prevalence of cannabis use among adolescents. In other words, states with medical and/or adult use laws are not seeing larger increases in adolescent use relative to states where use remains illegal,” the report states, additionally noting that educational early prevention methods can help to combat youth consumption.

The same appears to be true when focusing explicitly on medical cannabis laws, as a 2021 study “found no evidence between 1991 and 2015 of increases in adolescents reporting past 30-day marijuana use or heavy marijuana use associated with state MML (medical marijuana law) enactment or operational MML dispensaries.”

Another study tackled an adjacent inquiry: Does a state’s legal or illegal adult-use cannabis status impact children’s attitudes around cannabis use and perceptions of its risks? Researchers concluded that individual, child-level characteristics were the primary factor influencing young people’s attitudes toward cannabis, not state policy.

A recent report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further compounds these findings, showing a steady decline in cannabis use in high school students from 2011 to 2021.

The market is still in its infancy, and we’re bound to see more reports on the topic as time goes on. But as it stands, the argument that legal cannabis will increase use among young people appears to have weak footing, and naysayers may need to look elsewhere for concrete arguments against reform.

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