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Are Young Adults Getting Over Weed?

If a majority of Americans now support cannabis legalization, and as more states legalize medical bud, why are fewer young people trying herb?
Photo via Flickr / CC.

America really likes weed right now. Weed quality is getting really, really good, for one. The so-called Silicon Valley of Weed is also booming. For the first time in four decades of polling, a national survey showed that a 52 percent of Americans want to legalize the sticky stuff. With 20 states already having approved medical marijuana, another sixteen states decriminalizing possession, and two states, Colorado and Washington, legalizing bud outright for recreational use, the US is becoming a greener and greener country as we roll out of first decade of the new millenium.

But another national poll conducted this summer hints at a cultural trend seemingly at odds with this mass population shift towards drug love. A Gallup report published at the beginning of August says that while general support of cannabis has been increasing, experimentation and use among 18- to 29-year-olds is actually decreasing.


According to the poll, 56 percent of adults in that age group in 1977 had admitted to trying marijuana; by 1985, that figure had not changed. Today, that percentage has dropped 20 percent, down to an eyebrow-raising 36 percent. Which has me asking: If some projections have a majority of Americans supporting legalization, and if more states are legalizing medical marijuana, why could it be that fewer young people are trying herb?

Polling is tricky. All Gallup polls end with this crucial caveat: "In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls." They are prone to error and might nod at theories or ideas that cannot be proved true or false. This is especially true if and when the topic involves an illicit substance, which is inherently cloudy so long as research remains limited due to lack of government funding.

In other words, this poll might be suspect based on the question's wording. Here's how Gallup phrased it:

Keeping in mind that all of your answers in this survey are confidential, have you, yourself ever happened to try marijuana?

This question has been framed the same way since it was first asked in 1969. The wording implicitly calls attention to the fact that marijuana is illegal by highlighting the confidentiality. Besides, the syntax, "have you, yourself ever happened…", is seemingly casual while ultimately indirect and almost pointed. It's like asking if someone, you know, just accidentally happened to smoke a joint.


This poll may tell us that less people admit to smoking weed of course. But we might never know if they're being honest, or if the survey truly reflects a cultural shift. It would be extremely difficult to prove that young people are experimenting less today than the past.

Still, this decrease in experimentation seemed peculiar. Twenty percent over three decades is definitely noticeable, right? I reached out to Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization For The Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), to clarify this hazy polling data.

Drug-use rates are "very cyclical," St. Pierre told me. "And what causes [this characteristic] has vexed social demographers since the 1960s."

While he did point to research that demonstrates how the legal status of a drug has little effect of influencing people's choice to experiment, at the same time St. Pierre believes there is a relationship among older people accepting and embracing marijuana and young people subsequently rejecting it. The Gallup poll found that experimentation among 50- to 64-year-olds has increased from 9 percent to 44 percent in 30 years, demonstrating that older people are becoming more comfortable with marijuana as young people may be shying away.

"As cannabis is consumed more by parents and older Americans," St. Pierre went on, "youth wanting never to replicate anything their parents do, or worse, replicate what parents think is cool, will be culturally turned off by cannabis." He said he agrees with the research and lectures by Carnegie Mellon professor Jonathan Caulkins, author of Marijuana Legalization: What You Need To Know. Caulkins believes that kids will not be impressed by their grandparents smoking weed and that legalization is not a 'youth phenomenon.' He goes so far to say that is marijuana is branded as a "Baby Boomer drug" then millennials may shun it.

High Country, Motherboard's original doc on high-tech highs

St. Pierre noted that when the government makes something taboo it becomes "driven into subcultures not impacted by social norms that can reduce the overall societal use and harm associated with the abuse and misuse of contraband, not the responsible use of it by adults in private." In other words, there may very well be a forbidden fruit aspect of marijuana that influences use among young adults.

David Bienenstock, the former west coast editor of High Times and author of Legalized It! and occassional Motherboard contributor, suggested that the forbidden fruit idea could be legitimate, even if we shouldn't read too much into the recent Gallup poll. Bienenstock said that when the 1986 poll showed 56 percent of people in the 18-29 age group had tried weed, it came at moment in American history when the government and media were at the height of their anti-drug messaging.

"Those messages almost created an interest and a right of passage to go against it," said Bienenstock, who reminded me that the DARE program not only failed to deter people from using marijuana, but many believe it led to an increase. There was a correlation between the government and older people dismissing weed and young people trying it. Then again, correlation never implies causation.

Now, as drug war messaging loosens and support increases, young adults may become disenchanted with weed; a new correlation may exist. St. Pierre predicted that "there could be a reduction in cannabis over time if the past is prologue," regarding the popularity of legalized drugs like tobacco and alcohol that are waning politically and culturally.

Bienenstock said that legalization support is going up because people are realizing that even if they don't want to try weed, its in the nation's best interest to have it legalized, regulated and controlled. "That's where the message is breaking through…and why you see the legalization numbers going way up without the usage numbers going up with it."

Cannabis use among younger crowds has always been lower in the Netherlands than in the US, which fuels the forbidden fruit argument, though is not a fool-proof explanation as to why young people may be less experimental as legalization measures continue to pass. At the same time, it's hard to shake the cliche that teenagers always want what they can't have and become apathetic once they have it.

"People understand marijuana in a much more complex way today," Bienenstock noted. Americans may all accept legalized and regulated weed, but that doesn't mean everyone will try it. It'd be highly surprising if the bottom dropped out from under overall usage rates, if America ever stopped enjoying weed. But as your grandma gets better at rolling joints maybe it is time to move onto something a bit headier. Now who's got any of those 250-some odd new psychoactive substances?