Does decriminalization encourage marijuana use by teens?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Teen Drug Use" by Peter Katel on June 3, 2011.


Politicians and drug-policy experts have been arguing since the 1970s about whether softening laws against marijuana possession would increase drug consumption by teenagers. Linking decriminalization and rising use seemed plausible because teen consumption was at a record high during the '70s.

However, teen use declined during the 1980s, when the same laws were in effect. And after 1996, when California voters approved what is still the nation's most open-ended medical-marijuana law, researchers found no evidence of increased teenage drug consumption.

The researchers, who run an annual survey of middle and high school students for California's attorney general and the state's departments of Education and Alcohol and Drug Programs, wrote in 2008 that alcohol and drug use rose in the early and mid-1990s but leveled off in 1997. “In 1999, overall prevalence of use … mainly declined, markedly for some of the most commonly used substances,” Gregory Austin and Rodney Skager reported. [Footnote 12]

Since that report was issued, however, California was embroiled in 2009-2010 in an intense debate over legalizing marijuana outright, — and several more states enacted medical-pot or decriminalization measures.

“We have predicted, indeed, that there would be increases in marijuana consumption in surveys because of the significant attention that the potential use of marijuana as a medication has generated in the public,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told a press conference last December at which the most recent MTF results were announced. [Footnote 13]

“We cannot but wonder,” she said, “if the concept of marijuana as medicine could have harmful effects.” And, in fact, “we're seeing a decrease in the number of teenagers perceiving marijuana — regular marijuana use — as harmful.” [Footnote 14]

Yet Beau Kilmer, co-director of the drug-policy research center at RAND, a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., says no data confirm that more teens are using pot because they believe that if it's safe for sick people, it must be safe for them. “There is very little research, and none of it is definitive,” he says. “We don't have solid, peer-reviewed evidence to say that that's happening.”

A major reason for the lack of data, Kilmer adds, is that MTF and the National Household Survey don't include questions on where respondents live. That information would allow researchers to examine connections between drug use and, say, the enactment of a medical-marijuana law in some respondents' states, and the absence of such a law where other respondents live.

Like Volkow, many who support prohibition in one form or another concede the absence of hard evidence. But Dr. Andrea Barthwell, an addiction specialist, says her talks with young people back up the thesis that the medical-marijuana boom has led to more consumption. She recalls, “One of the things I heard from kids was, ‘Of course marijuana is safe. It helps sick people; why would it be harmful to me?’” Barthwell, CEO of Two Dreams Outer Banks, a private addiction-recovery center in Corolla, N.C., was a deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in the George W. Bush administration, which took a hard-line anti-marijuana stance.

Now that the medical-marijuana cause has gained greater traction, Barthwell says, advocates have gone further, claiming that marijuana is not associated with domestic violence and traffic fatalities and therefore is safer than alcohol. For teens, she says, the logical conclusion is that pot “is not only helpful but safer than something that's out there and legal.”

Legalization proponents see a strategy at work in attempts to connect marijuana decriminalization with increased teen usage. “The bottom line is always ‘the kids,’” says Marsha Rosenbaum, former San Francisco director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national organization advocating decriminalization. “That's why we can't reform our drug policy.”

A medical sociologist and former researcher on heroin addiction and other issues, Rosenbaum argues that teen drug consumption rises and falls for reasons that have little to do with policy developments. But she adds, “Teenagers today have basically grown up in a country where legal medical marijuana has been a reality since they were born, even if not in their state. So of course their views on this substance are going to reflect a kind of growing acceptance that marijuana is not the demon drug it has been portrayed as for decades.”

The Issues:

  • Does decriminalization encourage marijuana use by teens?
  • Are anti-drug advertising campaigns effective?
  • Is “zero tolerance” an effective anti-drug approach?

Click here for more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Teen Drug Use" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.



[12] Gregory Austin and Rodney Skager, “Twelfth Biennial Statewide Survey of California Students in Grades 7, 9 and 11, 2007-08,” California Attorney General's Office, Fall 2008, pp. 3, 16,

[13] “National Institute on Drug Abuse Holds News Conference on Teenage Drug Abuse,” CQ Newsmaker Transcripts, Dec. 14, 2010.

[14] Ibid.