The Kids are Alright... Right?

The impact of marijuana legalization on Washington state's minors

click to enlarge Cannabis use among people 45 to 54 years old has jumped 50 percent since 2002, research shows. - DARRIN HARRIS FRISBY
Darrin Harris Frisby
Cannabis use among people 45 to 54 years old has jumped 50 percent since 2002, research shows.

There is no shortage of pro-pot pride in Washington state, where sales since the recreational market opened in 2014 topped $1 billion last year. Everyone's doing it! And the stigma of cannabis use is fading fast. But is there a negative side effect to its new social acceptance?

Researchers have long noticed an inverse correlation between the perception of marijuana's risks and its use; i.e., a decrease in the latter is usually indicative of an increase in the former. A new study, in the wake of cannabis legalization in Washington, examined that relationship through the eyes of a group not often invited to the drug debates: adolescents.

"We need to better understand the impact of recreational marijuana use, so we're better prepared to prevent adverse consequences among the most vulnerable sectors of the population," says study leader Magdalena Cerdá at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.

Since legalization in 2012, marijuana use among eighth-graders in Washington has increased by 2 percent. That figure doubles among 10th-graders. Although the law unequivocally states that cannabis use is only for adults at least 21 years old, the study also found that the "perception of harmfulness" had dropped significantly (by up to 16 percent) for kids of middle school and high school age.

Perhaps that's because mom and dad, traditionally the responsible role models, are getting high just as often. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last September, the use of cannabis in America among people 45 to 54 years old increased by 50 percent since 2002. For those a bit older, 55 to 64, use has skyrocketed by 455 percent.

"Teens who have learned of the risks of marijuana from their parents are half as likely to use as those who haven't learned from their parents," said the vice chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in a 1996 hearing before Congress, when the impact of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign was beginning to wane.

Increasingly, teenagers aren't hearing the warnings from their teachers, either. The implicitly anti-drug D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program that once flourished in schools has largely been replaced by keepin' it REAL, which a co-developer says is "about things like being honest and safe and responsible." But not necessarily about drugs, per se.

In the meantime, opioid overdose deaths in the United States have surpassed deaths resulting from car accidents. On Friday, Seattle and King County revealed a plan, the first of its kind in the nation, to provide users with needles and supervision at safe-injection sites, without risk of arrest. Not everyone, however, is convinced that the normalization of drug use will be a positive development for impressionable youth.

As The Cannabist once explained, "Legalizing marijuana use doesn't mean authorities are going to be OK with you smoking a joint in your house while your kids watch television in the next room." ♦

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