Some who oppose medical marijuana legalization argue that the liberalization of policy encourages recreational cannabis use among young people. New research, however, contradicts this claim.
In a 2019 study, researchers from Boston College and the German Institute for Economic Research found that marijuana use by adolescents actually declined in states with legal medical marijuana programs. The team studied data from almost 900,000 adolescents between the years 1999 and 2015 and found a 1.1 percent overall drop in underage use of cannabis in states with legal medical marijuana. The drop was more pronounced among Hispanic and Black adolescents, and among males—with a range reflecting between 2.7 percent and 3.9 percent reductions of use in those populations.
On the other hand, states that have decriminalized marijuana without implementing a program for medical access paint a more mixed picture. In those cases, use among fourteen-year-olds, Hispanics, and other non-white adolescent groups decreased by up to 4.4 percent. White adolescents, however, showed an increased usage of 1.6 percent under decriminalization only—meaning that, overall, decriminalization alone doesn’t seem to reduce adolescent marijuana use.
The authors also noted that the rates of adolescent use tend to drop slightly for each year following medical legalization. This finding is helpful for medical marijuana advocates in states that have not yet legalized. It could also help boost the effort to change medical marijuana policy at the federal level.