Decriminalizing Marijuana Does Not Lead to Increased Youth Use, Study Finds

The research is the latest to indicate that loosening cannabis laws has no adverse impact on the rate of use by teens.

Reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana use does not lead to a rise in use by young people, according to research led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Researchers examined Youth Risk Behavior Survey data of eight- through 12th-graders in five states that decriminalized marijuana between 2008 and 2014: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maryland.

Decriminalization is reducing the legal penalties associated with marijuana possession from a crime to a civil or local infraction. Opponents to cannabis reform often argue that decriminalization and legalization could encourage more young people to use cannabis. This study is the latest to indicate that loosening cannabis laws has no such effect.

The Washington University researchers found that after marijuana possession was decriminalized in each of the five states, there was no apparent rise in marijuana use among the high school students. The study also found a 75 percent drop in marijuana-related arrests of people under 21.

“It seems decriminalization is a viable middle ground between legalization and continuing to arrest people for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” said the study’s lead author Richard A. Grucza, PhD, a professor of psychiatry.

“The policies have a net positive effect on public health because we don’t see increases in marijuana use among young people, and there’s the additional benefit that there were fewer marijuana arrests.”

Of the various positive effects of decriminalization, Grucza and his colleagues believe such a stark drop in marijuana arrests of young people is an important plus.

“That’s a big public health bonus,” Grucza explained. “An arrest can have a long-term impact on a teenager, even if that individual isn’t ultimately found guilty or sent to jail. Scholarship opportunities and grants can be lost, and in some states, drivers’ licenses are confiscated. There are several important life consequences that go along with having a criminal record after an arrest for marijuana.”

The study also found that marijuana arrests for adults dropped by 78 percent across the five decriminalized states after the new policies were implemented.

“The policies that the states adopted were very homogeneous, so we got a chance to look at the same kind of natural experiment five times over,” Grucza said. “In each of those five cases, we saw that the policy did what it was intended to do, which was reduce involvement of marijuana users with the criminal justice system.”

The new study, “Cannabis Decriminalization: A Study of Recent Policy Change in Five U.S. States,” was published July 16 in the International Journal of Drug Policy and is available to download via SSRN.

The Move Toward Cannabis Reform

Thirteen states have partially or fully decriminalized marijuana possession, while nine have legalized recreational marijuana for adults aged 21 years and older.

Support for cannabis reform has become mainstream in American politics and is now supported by some Republicans. Even former speaker of the House John Boehner recently announced he had reversed his long-held opposition to marijuana.

Several polls indicate that Americans in general support loosening cannabis laws in the U.S. A record high six-in-10 believe recreational marijuana should be legal.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced legislation that would decriminalize marijuana under federal law earlier this year, but doesn’t appear yet to have enough support to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

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