The presidential election stole the spotlight this year, as Donald Trump’s unique brand of politics offered something no one had ever seen before. However, another movement quietly pushed its way onto many of our ballots this year with immense success. I’m referring to marijuana legalization, which has gained steam over the last several years thanks to powerful efforts spent to normalize pot and change society’s perceptions of its effects.
In this last election cycle alone, nine states had marijuana legalization efforts on the ballot, covering about 82 million people. Five of those states were voting on recreational marijuana while the other four were voting on medicinal marijuana. Eight of the measures passed, while only Arizona’s Proposition 205 failed. That now makes eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana and 29 states, along with the District of Columbia, with some form of marijuana legalization.
During the election, one of the largest debates was the effect of legalization on teen use. Both sides argued differently, pointing to an extremely limited pool of data and interpreting it differently. However, as more time has passed since Colorado and Washington volunteered to become the nation’s guinea pigs regarding recreational marijuana, more evidence on the matter has begun to emerge.
One piece of that evidence is a comprehensive study recently released in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, co-authored by Dr. Magdalena Cerda, associate professor in emergency medicine at UC Davis, and Professor Deborah Hasin of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public. This study looked into teens’ perceptions toward marijuana before and after legalization, surveying 253,902 teens across the country from 2010 through 2015. It also compared teens from Washington and Colorado to teens in states that hadn’t legalized yet.
The results of this study are pretty striking. In Washington, teen perception of marijuana changed dramatically compared to the rest of the country. According to the study, the rate of perceived harmfulness dropped by about 14-16% for 8th and 10th graders, while it only dropped about 5-7% for that age group throughout the rest of the country. Similarly, Washington’s teen use rate increased by about 2-4% for 8th and 10th graders, while it only rose about 1% for the rest of the country. Though there were no real changes among perceived harmfulness or use of marijuana among 12th graders, the researchers believe that it is because “older students may already have a fully formed opinion of marijuana.”
Naysayers may point out that there were no significant changes in attitude or use among teens in the state of Colorado, according to this study. Those in favor of legalization frequently point to studies that show similar results (though other studies do show significant changes, the results in Colorado are admittedly mixed). However, the researchers for this study believe the discrepancies between Washington’s change in teen attitudes and Colorado’s can be “related to the different degree of commercialization of marijuana prior to legalization” in those states. Colorado already had a “very developed” medical marijuana industry, including “substantial advertising” and “legal protection to medical marijuana stores.” The youth in Colorado would have already been exposed to this, affecting their perception of marijuana before recreational marijuana became legal. This would not have happened in Washington, or in many other states for that matter.
The researchers offer two possible reasons for the change in teen attitude and use after legalization. The first one is that once marijuana began flowing into the state, it became easier for teenagers to obtain. Not only did it become easier for them to get it through a third party, but marijuana also became cheaper on the black market. However, the researchers are not convinced this is the cause, “as grower licenses and stores did not start until 2014.” Given their study ended in 2015, this would not allow much time for a change.
It is more likely that the real culprit is the simple act of legalization itself. Once marijuana becomes legal, it causes a “shift in social norms regarding marijuana use.” That shift, in turn, leads to increased teen use. Several aspects of the legalization effort cause changed attitudes toward marijuana. For one thing, the marijuana industry spends millions of dollars convincing the electorate that pot is harmless. Its sole purpose in doing so is to make millions more in selling marijuana, without regard to the people it sells marijuana to. This has had a significant impact, as fewer people than ever believe that pot is harmful, despite the facts showing otherwise.
Even without advertising, teens would be impacted by the legalization process. As Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues, notes that the legalization of recreational marijuana “contributes to the increased perception among teens that marijuana use is not harmful to them.” This sounds very similar to a sentiment expressed by Reverend Lovejoy from the Simpsons: “Once the government approves something, it's no longer immoral!” It’s too easy for people to equate the law with the standard for what is safe and moral, especially impressionable teenagers. Once they do, and they no longer perceive marijuana to be harmful, studies show that their usage rate will increase.
As legalization efforts continue in the future, backed by powerful interest groups and millions of dollars, they will work to convince voters that those efforts will have no negative effect on teenagers. Studies such as this will be critical pieces of evidence in showing otherwise while reversing the normalization of marijuana in society.
You can follow this author on Twitter: @StevenMiner14