Pubdate: Fri, 30 Dec 2016
Source: Boulder Weekly (CO)
Copyright: 2016 Boulder Weekly
Author: Paul Danish


A study of Washington high school students out Tuesday examining marijuana
use among students in the state two years before and after the vote to
legalize in 2012 finds that marijuana use increased by about 3 percent
among 8th- and 10th-graders over that period.

Conventional wisdom, based on results since marijuana was legalized three
years ago in Colorado, is that availability of legal weed is having little
or no effect on teen's use of the drug.

However, a study of Washington high school students out Tuesday flies
somewhat in the face of prevailing opinion. Examining marijuana use among
students in the state two years before and after the vote to legalize in
2012, it finds that marijuana use increased by about 3 percent among 8th-
and 10th-graders over that period.

The authors of the study, published in in the journal JAMA Pediatrics,
suggest that reduced stigma about marijuana use is one factor leading to
the results that they observed.

"Our study suggests that legalization of marijuana in Washington reduced
stigma and perceived risk of use," said lead author Magdalena Cerd of the
University of California in Davis in a news release, "which could explain
why younger adolescents are using more marijuana after legalization."

The findings are something of a puzzle. The study found no change in
marijuana use among 12th-graders in Washington state, which the authors
said could be because the 12th-graders in the study were old enough that
"they had already formed attitudes and beliefs related to marijuana use"
before the legal change.

The study also found no change in use among students at any grade level in
Colorado. The authors write that Colorado had a robust medical marijuana
industry in place well before full legalization, which may have affected
youth attitudes and behaviors there before the study period.

In fact, the Colorado findings were so striking that longtime skeptics of
marijuana legalization, like Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug
abuse, expressed suprise.

"We had predicted based on the changes in legalization, culture in the
U.S. as well as decreasing perceptions among teenagers that marijuana was
harmful that [accessibility and use] would go up," Volkow told U.S. News
and World Report earlier this month. "But it hasn't gone up."

Among adolescents, the perceived harmfulness of marijuana has been
declining for decades among all age groups. But at the same time,
adolescent use of marijuana has been flat or falling. This has led some
researchers, including Mark Kleiman of New York University, to rethink the
nature of the link between what teens think about weed and whether they
use it.

In an email, Kleiman pointed out that in Washington state, the
recreational marijuana market didn't open until halfway through 2014, and
then only in limited form. That's halfway through the "after" period (2013
to 2015) in the JAMA Pediatrics study.

"The effect of the [legalization] initiatives themselves on price and
availability of cannabis really wasn't felt until after" the study's
surveys were done, Kleiman said. "Any measured effect would be more likely
the result of the political campaign around legalization than legalization

Indeed, the study's authors agree with that assessment. "Simply legalizing
an activity can change people's views about it and can change their
behaviors as well," said co-author Deborah Hasin of Columbia University in
an email.

Still, the measured effect in the study is small -- a 2 percent increase
for eighth-graders and a 4 percent increase for 10th-graders. Given the
small magnitude of the findings and the lack of effect among either
12th-graders or students in Colorado, Kleiman said it simply "remains too
early" to say anything conclusive about the effect of recreational
marijuana laws on teen marijuana use.

The authors of the JAMA Pediatrics study said that, given the findings,
states that legalize marijuana should also invest in
substance-abuse-prevention programs for teens.

Kleiman said there's an even easier way to ensure that adolescent
marijuana use remains at a minimum level -- make sure marijuana doesn't
become too cheap.

"There's reason to think that adolescents are more price-sensitive than
adults with respect to cannabis use," he said, "so I'd advise states that
legalize to do what they can to keep prices from falling."
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