Marijuana study finds teen use in medical marijuana states is down

September 09, 2005

Seth Freedland, Ukiah Daily Journal

Countering ominous predictions by anti-drug advocates, the 10 states that passed medical marijuana laws over the last decade have seen sharp declines in pot use among teenagers, according to a new survey by a marijuana advocacy organization.

In California, usage among ninth-graders has plummeted 47 percent since 1996, the year the state became the first to legalize medical marijuana. The study, released by the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. this week, is based on data from national and state studies, which show a general drop in marijuana use by teens.

Although debate around medical marijuana is frequently colored by worries over increasing drug abuse by youth, the report found the opposite to be true.

Legal approval of medical cannabis has not increased recreational use of marijuana among teens, the organization concluded. More notably, especially for Ukiah residents, the decline in many of the states with medical marijuana laws is "slightly more favorable" than nationwide trends, it reported. California, Colorado and Washington have all experienced significantly greater drops in marijuana usage than the national rate. Only three states with medical marijuana laws have lagged behind the nationwide drop in adolescent marijuana use, the report said.

"If medical marijuana laws send the wrong message to children," the study said, profound attention to the debate "would be expected to produce a nationwide increase in marijuana use, the largest increase in those states enacting medical marijuana laws. But just the opposite has occurred."

The most extensive available data came from California, where a survey of about 6,000 teens every two years depicted climbing pot use before passage of the 1996 medical cannabis law. Across all grades, marijuana use plunged between 1996 and 2004, when the number of high school freshmen in California who reported using pot in the last 30 days dropped 47 percent. During the same period, the number of freshmen who sampled cannabis dropped 35 percent.

Jane Warner, executive director for California's chapter of Partnership for A Drug-Free America, disagreed with the study's findings, saying: "There is no basis for tying the two issues together. Pot use is down because of what the Partnership has done along with the other anti-drug organizations. It has nothing to do with the medical issue or use."

But the Marijuana Police Project study suggests that medical marijuana may have recalibrated youth viewpoint on pot.

"Perhaps medical marijuana laws send a very different message," the group said. Teens may increasingly consider pot "a treatment for serious illness, not a toy, and requires cautious and careful handling."

Bruce Mirken, MPP's director of communications, admitted the fault in seeking out strong correlations between teen pot use and medical marijuana ordinances like Ukiah's using the available data.

"I just don't think there's a huge effect one way or the other," Mirken said. "(The study suggests) it has a counter-effect, but I don't think either is huge. As adults, we tend to project our own fears on what young people will do, but after all these laws and all this time the sky has not fallen."

Mirken said he hoped anti-medical marijuana zealots who label proponents of these measures "potheads" -- as one woman loudly did during a pivotal Ukiah City Council meeting -- would be able to use the information to "take a deep breath and consider (medical marijuana laws) on their merits."

Seth Freedland can be reached at .

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