Teen Marijuana Use Has Declined In Washington Since Legalization, New State Research Shows

April 2, 2024 · Marijuana Moment

Newly released data from a Washington State survey of adolescent and teenage students show declines in both lifetime and past-30-day marijuana use in recent years, with striking drops that held steady through 2023. The results also indicate that perceived ease of access to cannabis among underage students has generally fallen since the state enacted legalization for adults in 2012—contrary to fears repeatedly expressed by opponents of the policy change.

About 8.4 percent of Washington 10th graders said in 2023 that they had used marijuana within the past 30 days, according to the new data, up slightly from 7.2 percent in 2021. But both of those numbers were sharply lower than pre-legalization numbers. In 2010, for example, 20.0 percent of 10th graders in the state said they’d used cannabis in the past month.

In King County, by far the state’s most populous, just 5.5 percent of 10th grade respondents reported cannabis use within the past month in 2023. That’s down from 7.3 percent in 2021 and 18.1 percent in 2010.

Similar drops were seen in lifetime marijuana use, as well as among other surveyed grade levels, including 6th, 8th and 12th grades.

The data come from the Healthy Youth Survey, which asks students statewide about a variety of topics around health behaviors, mental health and other areas of well-being.

In a blog post last week, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) noted the findings. “In 2021, survey data showed a 50% decline in youth cannabis and alcohol use in the past 30-days among 10th graders,” wrote Kristen Haley, LCB’s public health education liaison. “The 2023 results show these numbers have remained relatively stable.”

Health officials attribute the precipitous drops between 2018 and 2021 as a sign the pandemic played a role—though youth marijuana use had already been trending downward overall in the years since adult-use legalization was enacted.

“The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a large decrease, roughly 50%, in most youth substance use,” the state Department of Health said in a release about the survey’s top-level findings. “While the long-term impacts are unknown, in 2023 we see that substance use has remained relatively stable, both in Washington and nationally.”

“Exceptions to this stable trend were increases in misuse of prescription drugs, pain killers, and other illegal drugs compared to 2021,” the department said. “While representing a relatively small proportion of students overall (each under 3%), these findings show more prevention work is needed.”

Perceived access to marijuana also fell significantly, according to the new data. As part of the survey, students were asked, “If you wanted to get some marijuana, how easy would it be for you to get some?”

In 2010, more than half (54.3 percent) of 10th grade respondents said it would be “sort of or very easy” to obtain cannabis. By 2021, that number had fallen to less than a third (31.6 percent) and in 2023 it fell slightly further to 30.8 percent.

The survey also asked about other cannabis-related behaviors and attitudes. Statewide, for example, 10th graders last year were significantly more likely than in prior years to say there was at least some risk in trying marijuana or using it on a regular basis. And far more answered “yes” when asked whether a kid who used marijuana in their communities would be caught by police.

Even among youth peer groups, consumption is less tolerated today as compared to before adult-use legalization took effect. When asked “How wrong do YOU think it is for someone your age to use marijuana, more than three-quarters (76.5 percent) of 10th graders statewide said it was “wrong or very wrong”—up from 71.1 percent in 2021 and 70.0 percent in 2010 prior to legalization.

The new data release comes on the heels of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study earlier this year that also drew on the Healthy Youth Survey and found that current and frequent use of marijuana among teens in King County has fallen significantly since state voters legalized adult-use cannabis by initiative in November 2012.

Between 2008 and 2021, current use fell from highs of 20.4 percent among males (in 2010) and 15.5 percent among females (in 2012) down to 7.7 percent and 9.0 percent, respectively, in 2021.

Researchers in that report said legalization and related regulations and age controls could have have fueled the trend by making marijuana harder for teens to access, though they also said the COVID pandemic may have contributed to more recent declines.

“The legalization of nonmedical cannabis for adults aged ≥21 years in Washington with licensed dispensaries requiring proof of age might have affected availability of cannabis to younger persons as well as their opportunities to engage in its use,” the CDC report says. “This, in turn, might have had an impact on use prevalence.”

In the blog post about the latest youth survey data, LCB said that while ID-check compliance rates among licensed marijuana retailers “continue to be high, we are interested in data related to 10th graders with past-30 day use.” Among that population, the agency noted, “9% indicated they bought cannabis at a store and 2% reported stealing it from a store.”

LCB added that it’s possible those numbers reflect hemp-derived products carried in stores outside of the state’s licensed marijuana system. “Note, these numbers may reflect the hemp-derived cannabis that was available in 2021,” Kristen Haley, the agency’s public health education liasion wrote in the post. “I believe there is always more work we can do to continue preventing youth access to and use of cannabis.”

A separate study late last year also found that Canadian high-school students reported it was more difficult to access marijuana since the government legalized the drug nationwide in 2019. The prevalence of current cannabis use also fell during the study period, from 12.7 percent in 2018–19 to 7.5 percent in 2020–21, even as retail sales of marijuana expanded across the country.

Authors of that report said the declines in perceived availability in marijuana over time “align with evidence from youth in the U.S. showing that perceptions of cannabis being easy to access has been declining (2002–2015).”

In December, meanwhile, a U.S. health official said that teen marijuana use has not increased “even as state legalization has proliferated across the country.”

“There have been no substantial increases at all,” said Marsha Lopez, chief of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) epidemiological research branch. “In fact, they have not reported an increase in perceived availability either, which is kind of interesting.”

Another earlier analysis from CDC found that rates of current and lifetime cannabis use among high school students have continued to drop amid the legalization movement.

A study of high school students in Massachusetts that was published last November found that youth in that state were no more likely to use marijuana after legalization, though more students perceived their parents as cannabis consumers after the policy change.

A separate NIDA-funded study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2022 also found that state-level cannabis legalization was not associated with increased youth use. The study demonstrated that “youth who spent more of their adolescence under legalization were no more or less likely to have used cannabis at age 15 years than adolescents who spent little or no time under legalization.”

Yet another 2022 study from Michigan State University researchers, published in the journal PLOS One, found that “cannabis retail sales might be followed by the increased occurrence of cannabis onsets for older adults” in legal states, “but not for underage persons who cannot buy cannabis products in a retail outlet.”

The trends were observed despite adult use of marijuana and certain psychedelics reaching “historic highs” in 2022, according to separate data released last year. (Full Story)

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