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Does Pot Legalization Mean More Kids Will Try It?

It's not just about whether a state legalizes, but the context in which they do.
Image: Jantaa/Pixabay

With adult use or medical cannabis legal in more than half the country, smoking pot is becoming more normalized. But does that mean kids will be more likely to try it?

According to epidemiologist Magdalena Cerda at the University of California, Davis, Violence Prevention Research Program, the answer is, largely,yes, but more so in states with conservative weed laws. In a study published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, Cerda and her fellow researchers assessed the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington on attitudes about pot and on how minors were using it.

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The researchers used surveys from Monitoring the Future (a yearly program funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) between 2010 and 2015 to look at the perceived risks of occasional pot use and at self-reported pot use within 30 days among eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade students before and after legalization. The changes in Colorado and Washington were then compared to students in other parts of the country where weed had not been legalized.

The researchers found that the perceived risks of pot use declined everywhere, but more so and especially among Washington eighth and tenth graders, whose marijuana use also increased by eight percent among eighth graders and by 20 percent among tenth graders within a 30 day span between 2013 and 2015. (Between 2010 and 2012, Washington eighth graders' pot use increased by two percent and for tenth graders, by four percent.) The researchers also noted that the perceived risks of pot use declined everywhere, but more so and especially among Washington eighth and tenth graders, whose marijuana use also increased in within a 30 day span.

A little over 60 percent of Washington eighth graders and 47 percent of tenth graders saw marijuana use as a health risk between 2013 and 2015, in contrast to the 75 percent and 63 percent respectively in 2010 through 2012.

They didn't find these differences, however, in Colorado, or among twelfth graders in Washington.

Why did Washington experience a change that Colorado didn't? "The authors suggest that this may have been because Colorado's medical marijuana laws were much more liberal before legalization than those in Washington," according to JAMA. Since 2009, Colorado has had a medical marijuana program, with not only for-profit dispensaries but also advertising of marijuana products. After 2009, the perceived risk of marijuana use decreased among youth in Colorado.

"There was a more robust commercialization effort around medical marijuana prior to recreational marijuana being legalized," said Cerda. "That might have contributed to the fact that even before marijuana was legalized, the use was already quite high and the perceived harm was quite low."

Kids' attitudes about weed might also be connected to what their parents think of it. Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry for Zucker Hillside Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, said that if parents think there's less harm associated with pot use, children will likely follow. "Combine that with a legalized market where you can readily buy it," he said, "and it will be easier to obtain, and children will be more likely to use it."

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