Pubdate: Wed, 01 Jun 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Column: Wonkblog
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Christopher Ingraham


The marijuana policy landscape changed rapidly between 2002 and 2013. 
During that time, 13 states passed medical-marijuana laws, nearly as 
many relaxed penalties for marijuana use, and Colorado and Washington 
became the first states to fully legalize recreational pot use.

Opponents of marijuana liberalization warned that these changes would 
bring devastating consequences, particularly for kids. The president 
of National Families in Action, an anti-drug group, warned that 
commercial marijuana would "literally dumb down the precious minds of 
generations of children." Psychiatrist Christian Thurstone, an 
outspoken opponent of Colorado's marijuana legalization, argued that 
"the state's relaxed laws have made the drug widely available - and 
irresistible - to too many adolescents."

But even with the widespread liberalization of marijuana laws and 
huge changes in public acceptance of the drug, marijuana use among 
the nation's teens has not increased. Nor have problems such as 
marijuana addiction and dependency.

In fact, the opposite has occurred, according to a new study from 
Richard Grucza and colleagues at the Washington University School of 
Medicine in St. Louis.

The number of American teens with marijuana-related problems - such 
as dependency on the drug or troubles with family or school due to 
marijuana use - fell by 24 percent between 2002 and 2013. The overall 
number of teens using marijuana fell, too. And the teens who do use 
marijuana are less likely to experience problems due to the drug.

"We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and 
abuse," Grucza said in a statement. "Whatever is happening with these 
behavioral issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of 
marijuana decriminalization."

Grucza and his colleagues analyzed data from the National Survey on 
Drug Use and Health, an annual federal survey. Their research, 
forthcoming in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & 
Adolescent Psychiatry, was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"The reduction in the past-year prevalence of marijuana use disorders 
among adolescents took place during a period when 10 U.S. states 
relaxed criminal sanctions against adult marijuana use and 13 states 
enacted medical marijuana policies," the study found. "During this 
period, teenagers also became less likely to perceive marijuana use 
as risky, and marijuana use became more socially acceptable among 
young adults."

If legalization opponents are to be believed, these are all the 
ingredients necessary for an explosion in marijuana problems among 
the nation's teens. So what happened?

In looking more closely at the data, the researchers discovered that 
the number of adolescents experiencing an array of nondrug-related 
conduct problems - fighting, stealing, arguing with their parents - 
also was declining. And so they divided the youths experiencing 
marijuana-use problems into two groups: those who exhibited 
marijuana-use disorders along with other conduct problems and those 
who had marijuana-use disorders but no other conduct problems.

They found that the decline in marijuana-use disorders was 
concentrated almost exclusively among adolescents dealing with other 
problems on top of their pot use. By contrast, they discovered, "the 
proportion of adolescents with marijuana use disorders who did not 
report conduct problems remained relatively constant."

Researchers know that bad behavior and drug use often go hand in hand 
among teens. While the causality can go either way - bad behavior 
causes drug use or vice versa - a reduction in one usually 
accompanies a reduction in the other. So if teens are becoming 
better-behaved overall, it stands to reason that drug problems will 
decrease, too.

"Other research shows that psychiatric disorders earlier in childhood 
are strong predictors of marijuana use later on," Grucza said in a 
statement. "So it's likely that if these disruptive behaviors are 
recognized earlier in life, we may be able to deliver therapies that 
will help prevent marijuana problems - and possibly problems with 
alcohol and other drugs, too."

This research does not show a direct link between liberalization of 
marijuana laws and the reductions in teens' marijuana abuse. It 
instead strongly suggests that other factors - such as broader 
behavioral and mental health trends - are much more likely to drive 
changes in teen marijuana use.

Grucza's study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that 
changes to marijuana policy have had a much smaller effect on teen 
drug use than once feared. A paper published in Lancet Psychiatry 
last year found that passing medical-marijuana laws had no effect on 
teen marijuana use at the state level. Other large surveys of 
adolescents, such as the Monitoring the Future Study, found flat teen 
marijuana use in recent years. State-level federal survey data shows 
little change for the age group, even in states that have legalized 
use for adults.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom