What Declining Adolescent Marijuana Use Tells Us

What Declining Adolescent Marijuana Use Tells Us
teens smoking marijuana in smoke filled room


A recently released study out of the University of Michigan shows a dramatic decline in marijuana use among adolescents. The decline is drastic enough to prompt researchers to want to know why. As that answer is being sought, there is something particularly important this study tells us: the rapid spread of medical and recreational marijuana laws has not directly led to a spike in cannabis consumption among young people.

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the University of Michigan study. According to the Institute’s Nora Volkow, the decline in adolescent cannabis use is “unprecedented” and “unexpected”. How steep was the decline? Try 38% among 8th and 10th graders and 13% among 12th graders. And by the way, that’s a year-on-year decrease from 2020.

The COVID-19 Component

It should be noted that there is a COVID-19 component here. Researchers noted that both marijuana and tobacco use increased sharply among adolescents between 2017 and 2019. The availability of vaping products is seen as partially to blame. But consumption tapered off in 2020 and plummeted in 2021. The COVID pandemic is believed to be in play.

How so? Adolescents tend to engage in risky behavior away from home. They use tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, etc. when out hanging with friends. Engaging in such behaviors at home is less common because doing so is riskier.

If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic kept adolescents at home. Just the fact that much of life was shut down during the first 6 to 8 months of the pandemic left teens with very little to do other than stay home and play video games or connect on social media. Not having opportunities to get out of the house translated into fewer opportunities to use tobacco and cannabis.

Looking to Future Studies

Multiple studies comparing adolescent cannabis use in 2020 and 2021 make it clear that pro-cannabis legislation did not lead to higher adolescent consumption during those two years. However, we also cannot say that improving adult access to cannabis unequivocally does not lead to increased teen consumption. Remember, teen consumption skyrocketed between 2017 and 2019.

Unfortunately, the COVID crisis threw a monkey wrench into research data. We have to consider 2020 data as an aberration due to the effects the pandemic influencing so many things. Likewise, 2021 may be a similar aberration in the sense that life has not totally returned to normal. In short, additional data from future studies will be necessary to draw more concrete conclusions.

Recreational vs. Medical-Only States

It might also be helpful to see data comparing medical-only with recreational cannabis states. Beehive Farmacy is a Salt Lake City medical cannabis dispensary with a second location in Brigham City. They explain that Utah is a medical-only state. In Utah, any cannabis obtained for recreational use must be obtained illegally.

In Colorado, things are different. Colorado allows adult consumption. This means adults could purchase cannabis legally and then either give it to kids or leave it unattended where kids could take it themselves.

If studies showed uniform numbers across both medical-only and recreational states, we would be in a better position to understand true teen consumption. But if the numbers were higher in recreational-use states, we could then suggest that such use encourages more teen consumption.

For now, it doesn’t look like opening the door to recreational use is pushing more adolescents to cannabis. But we cannot say for sure until we are able to accurately account for the COVID pandemic. The news is good, but it has to be tempered by a bit of COVID reality.

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