Cannabis Science

Do more youth use marijuana in legal marijuana states?

Do more youth use marijuana in legal marijuana states

Marijuana use has been controversial for many years even though it is so widely used. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, marijuana is the second most commonly used psychotropic drug. They also stated that in 2018 more than 11.8 million young adults reported marijuana use in the past year. Currently, 33 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Of these 33 states, 11 of them have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

One con cern some have is that they fear young people would use the drug more if it were legalized. Is youth smoking marijuana a legitimate concern or is it just plain fear-mongering? This is what the research says.

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Are Youth Using More Marijuana in States Where It Is Legalized? 

The short answer is no. 

According to a 2019 study, in JAMA Psychiatry, there wasn’t much change in how often those between the ages of 12-17 used marijuana in the past month. According to the study “Among the 12- to 17-year-old respondents, the prevalence of past-month marijuana use and past-month frequent use following state RML ( recreational marijuana laws) enactments did not change in the overall sample or among users.

For the age group ages 18-25, there was no difference in past-month marijuana use, past-month frequent use, or past-year CUD (cannabis use disorder) in the overall sample or among users. You can take a look at the graphs here.

The study states that it was expected that marijuana usage would not increase among younger people. The reason is that marijuana was legalized for those over the age of 21 anyway. 

Increase in Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD)

The study stated that cannabis use disorder had a small increase in those aged 12-17 years. Cannabis use disorder increased from 2.18% to 2.72% after legalization. The cases of CUD among young people in this age range is 25% higher in states where marijuana was legalized for recreational use than states where it wasn’t. 

Cannabis use disorder, according to Healthline, is a “problematic pattern of cannabis use that causes clinically significant impairment or distress”. It can develop into addiction.

The study says, one reason that there is a small increase in CUD and not in frequent use among past-month users is that those using may be particularly vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they may have a history of psychiatric comorbidity, traumatic life events, or family history of substance use disorders. The increase in CUD could also be a result of the increased potency of marijuana products after legalization.

According to John F. Kelly, PhD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, who was quoted in Healthline, “Like any drug — alcohol included — some are more vulnerable to its effects than others genetically, and some will become addicted to it, having severe consequences”. CUD may also cause an increased risk of heart rhythm problems.

Impact of Marijuana on Youth: What Other Studies Say

According to another study published in 2019 by JAMA Pediatrics, “RMLs (recreational marijuana laws) were associated with an 8% decrease in the odds of marijuana use and a 9% decrease in the odds of frequent marijuana use.” The study also states that there was “no evidence that the legalization of medical marijuana encourages marijuana use among youth.” 

As a matter of fact, the study believes that it may actually be harder for young people to have access to marijuana as a result of legalization. The reasoning behind this assertion is that it is “more difficult for teenagers to obtain marijuana as drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries that require proof of age”. 

A study done in 2017 found that there was an increase in marijuana use in teens in Washington. The study says, “Marijuana use among eighth and 10th graders in Washington increased 2.0% and 4.1%, respectively, between 2010-2012 and 2013-2015”. This was not seen in states where marijuana wasn’t legalized. However, Colorado youth marijuana use before and after legalization didn’t show any difference. It’s therefore hard to pinpoint legalization being the reason for the increase in Washington. 

According to another study, “Cannabis use among youths declined after legalization among 8th and 10th graders” in Washington. This is in stark contrast to the study quoted previously. 

Is There Anything Wrong With Teens Using Marijuana?

Even though the components of marijuana have many benefits, using marijuana before a certain age may not be a great idea. Of course, you or people you may know might have started using cannabis younger and haven’t suffered any detrimental effects. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky. 20% of adolescents who start using marijuana, according to Surgeon General Jerome Adams, develop an addiction. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who use marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults. 

Marijuana Brain Development Youth

In addition to that, it may take a toll on their developing brains. According to Kevin Sabet, PhD, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who was quoted in Healthline, “Use of the drug is indeed addictive, can dramatically harm the developing brain, increases the risk of severe mental illness, and can even predict future substance abuse.”

This is definitely not unique to marijuana. Legal drugs like alcohol has a negative effect on the brains of young people and so do cigarettes.

What is the Solution?

Experts disagree with the notion that avoiding the legalization of marijuana is the best course of action.  According to Magdalena Cerdá, an associate professor and director of the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Langone Health, there are benefits to legalization, as quoted in Business Insider. Cerdá, who also conducted the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, said “Our results in no way imply that we shouldn’t be legalizing marijuana. If use is increasing, states need to be able to understand what’s going on so they can respond appropriately.”

Her solutions are:

  • States should invest in programs to help treat cannabis use disorder and prevent adolescents from using marijuana. 
  • States should consider limiting how much THC-containing products are advertised.
  • Limit how much THC can be included in legal products
  • Restricting where stores are located
  • Restrict the opening hours of the stores that sell cannabis 


It appears that legalization isn’t pushing more young people to use marijuana. It may actually be making it harder for them to access it. Moreover, it’s worth noting the small increase in CUD. In addition to that, marijuana isn’t recommended for people younger than 18. However, the solution would not be to pull back on legalization in order to protect them.  The solution would be to legalize marijuana and take appropriate actions. For instance, creating programs around marijuana education for youth to prevent adolescents from using and creating centers to treat those that need treatment for CUD.


About Trevann

Trevann is Stoner Rotation’s Jamaica-based lead writer for the Science section of our cannabis blog. She graduated with honors receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Biology from the University of West Indies, Mona. For the last three years, she has covered some of the biggest questions around cannabis and health underpinned with research from supporting studies, medical journals and scholarly articles. Got something on your mind? You can reach her at [email protected].