Article image

Cannabis legalization does not increase youth substance abuse

In the U.S., the wave of cannabis legalization sparks debates about its impact on young people. A new study from Boston College sheds light on these concerns, providing evidence that increasing legal access does not necessarily increase substance abuse among adolescents.

Cannabis legalization

As of 2021, a total of 24 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws that legalize the recreational use of cannabis. In these locations, adults legally possess and use marijuana for personal enjoyment, not just for medical purposes.

This represents a major shift in U.S. drug policy. It shows increasing public acceptance of cannabis. There are also growing legislative efforts to regulate and tax cannabis. These efforts are similar to those for alcohol.

Additionally, of those 24 states, 18 have also set up systems that allow for the legal sale of cannabis. This includes regulations for retail dispensaries where consumers can purchase cannabis legally.

Regulations due to cannabis legalization

In states where cannabis has been legalized, the government sets comprehensive regulations covering all aspects of the cannabis industry. These regulations encompass not just the use and possession of cannabis but extend to its production, distribution, and commercial sale.

One of the main goals of regulatory oversight is to dismantle illegal markets. States provide a legal, regulated alternative that is safer and more reliable than unregulated sources. By regulating the cannabis industry, states ensure product safety for consumers. This reduces risks linked to contamination or overly potent products.

This legislative trend is part of a broader movement toward cannabis legalization observed nationwide and globally, prompted by arguments for criminal justice reform, economic benefits, and emerging evidence suggesting controlled legalization might not increase substance abuse rates – especially among youth.

Cannabis legalization impact on teens

The primary goal of the study was to assess the impact of cannabis accessibility. Researchers explored if legalization and normalization through legal channels increased substance use. They specifically looked at cannabis use rates among teenagers.

The researchers collected data from nearly 900,000 high school students. These students were from 47 states. The data spanned from 2011 to 2021. This period includes years before and after the enactment of cannabis legalization laws in many states.

Cannabis legalization and substance abuse

The extensive analysis revealed key findings. Instead of increasing, substance use among teenagers showed modest decreases. This included the use of cannabis, alcohol, and e-cigarettes.

These findings suggest that cannabis legalization and regulation may be reducing substance use among adolescents. The researchers hypothesized that several factors could be at play in these results:

Regulation reduces illegal cannabis access

In legal cannabis markets, strict regulatory frameworks are put in place to control who can legally purchase and possess cannabis. The regulations typically include measures such as requiring proof of age via government-issued identification, much like the systems used for alcohol sales.

This requirement mandates that buyers must meet the minimum age, usually 21 years, in the United States. Only those who meet this age can purchase cannabis from legal dispensaries.

In unregulated or illegal markets, there are no such controls or checks on purchasers. Illegal dealers typically do not require any form of ID verification, which makes it easier for underage individuals to access cannabis.

These dealers operate outside the law, with the primary goal of selling their product regardless of the buyer’s age, thereby increasing the risk of adolescent access and use.

Furthermore, legal dispensaries also contribute to reducing access for minors through the implementation of stringent security measures and strict adherence to local and state laws.

Staff members receive training to comply with these regulations. They refuse sales to individuals who cannot provide proper identification or appear to be purchasing for underage users.

Normalization reduces appeal

The concept of the “forbidden fruit” appeal refers to the phenomenon where prohibited items or behaviors become more attractive simply because they are off-limits. This psychological effect is often observed among adolescents.

Breaking rules or engaging in taboo activities can be seen as a form of rebellion or a way to assert independence. When a substance like cannabis is illegal, it might be perceived by some teenagers as a daring, rebellious act to use it, enhancing its allure.

However, with the legalization of cannabis, this dynamic begins to shift. Legalization demystifies cannabis by integrating it into regular, legal commerce and subjecting it to everyday regulatory scrutiny like any other commodity.

This change can alter the perception of cannabis among young people. When cannabis is legally available and regulated, and when its use is normalized within society, it loses some of its rebellious allure. Instead of being a symbol of defiance against authority, it becomes just another regulated substance, akin to alcohol or tobacco.

A reduction in the “forbidden fruit” appeal can lead to lower rates of use among adolescents. They might no longer associate cannabis use with rebellion or see it as an attractive way to challenge societal norms.

Moreover, the discussions around cannabis use tend to become more focused on health and safety rather than legality. This can further deter adolescents from using it as a statement against authority.

Public health initiatives

When cannabis is legalized, the regulatory framework that accompanies this shift often includes provisions for using some of the revenue generated through taxes and fees for public health initiatives.

The funding is frequently directed toward educational programs and public health campaigns designed to inform the public about the safe and responsible use of cannabis. These programs are crucial, especially for teenagers, who are at a formative stage and susceptible to influences regarding substance use.

The focus of these educational initiatives is typically comprehensive, covering the potential risks and health implications of cannabis use. They aim to debunk myths and provide factual information that can help teenagers make informed decisions.

By increasing awareness of the consequences of misuse and the legal stipulations surrounding cannabis consumption, these educational efforts serve as a preventive measure against substance abuse.

Moreover, public health campaigns can effectively leverage multiple media platforms that are popular among teenagers, such as social media, videos, and interactive websites, to ensure that the message is conveyed in an engaging and accessible manner.

This broad reach is vital in countering the often-glamorized portrayals of substance use prevalent in various media and peer groups.

Cannabis legalization and our youth

While the findings provide encouraging insights into the effects of cannabis legalization on adolescent substance use, it is important to recognize that these results represent just one piece of a larger, ongoing investigation.

The study alleviates some initial fears that legalization would directly lead to increased substance use among teenagers. However, this does not mean that the issue is fully resolved or that the potential risks have vanished entirely.

Longitudinal studies are research methods that observe the same individuals repeatedly over a prolonged period. These studies are highly effective for understanding changes and long-term outcomes in a population. In the context of cannabis legalization, longitudinal studies can offer valuable insights.

“Although studies of early-enacting states and Canada reported few effects of recreational cannabis legislation on adolescent substance abuse, experts have highlighted the need to further assess policy outcomes in youth as legislation and retail availability spread, and other policies targeting youth substance use shift,” noted the researchers.

“We found limited associations between recreational cannabis legalization and retail sales with adolescent substance use, extending previous findings.”

Future directions

As we move forward, sustained research efforts are necessary. These should not only continue to track usage rates among adolescents but also examine deeper impacts, such as the effects on mental health, academic performance, and social behavior.

Longitudinal studies, which follow the same individuals over many years, will be particularly valuable in painting a clearer picture of how cannabis legalization influences youth over significant periods.

Moreover, it’s crucial that as more data becomes available, policymakers use it to refine and adjust regulations and public health strategies. Sensible regulation – balancing control with accessibility, and enforcement with education – might prove to be a key strategy in preventing cannabis misuse among teenagers while also addressing other public health concerns.

More about cannabis and its legalization

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has a complex and evolving status globally, with a wide range of uses, effects, and legal standings. Here are some key aspects to consider about cannabis apart from the study previously discussed:

Medical uses

Cannabis is recognized for its medicinal properties and is used to treat a variety of conditions. It can alleviate chronic pain, reduce nausea during chemotherapy, manage seizures in conditions like epilepsy, and help with sleep disorders. Medical cannabis is legal in many countries and U.S. states, where it is prescribed by doctors under specific conditions.

Recreational use

Beyond medical use, recreational cannabis is consumed for its psychoactive effects. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive component that provides the “high” associated with its use. Recreational use is increasingly being legalized in various states and countries, with regulations focusing on controlling distribution and consumption among adults.

Economic impact

The legalization of cannabis has significant economic implications. It creates jobs in cultivation, distribution, and retail. Legal cannabis markets also generate substantial tax revenue that often supports public services such as education and law enforcement.

Social issues

Cannabis legalization is also linked to social justice issues. For decades, marijuana laws disproportionately affected minority communities, leading to high rates of incarceration. Legalization efforts often include measures to address these past injustices, such as expunging criminal records and promoting equity in the cannabis industry.

Regulation and safety

Legal markets are regulated to ensure product safety and quality. This includes testing for pesticides, molds, and other contaminants, as well as regulating the potency of products to ensure consumer safety. Regulations also aim to prevent underage use and address concerns related to impaired driving.

Cultural shifts

As cannabis becomes more mainstream, its cultural perception is shifting. What was once considered a dangerous drug is now increasingly viewed as a safe and acceptable form of relaxation or social activity, similar to alcohol.

Internationally, the stance on cannabis varies widely. Countries like Canada and Uruguay have legalized cannabis nationwide, while others maintain strict prohibitions. International bodies like the United Nations are also reevaluating cannabis under global drug treaties.

Understanding these multifaceted aspects of cannabis helps to frame the broader context of its role in society, beyond the specific impacts of legalization on adolescent substance use.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day