Opponents of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes have long argued that such laws will encourage more youngsters to partake. But that notion may have no factual grounding, according to a new study that shows cannabis use among teenagers didn’t increase in states that legalized medical marijuana.
Researchers collected and analyzed 24 years’ worth of survey data from more than 1 million middle and high school students across the United States. Their findings showed marijuana use to be more common in states that had passed medical marijuana laws by 2014, with 16 percent of youth living there disclosing their usage. In states that didn’t legalize medical marijuana, 13 percent of respondents said they used cannabis within the last month.
Things got more interesting when researchers examined long-term marijuana use in 21 states that had legalized medical marijuana by 2014. They found little to no change in the number of young people who tried cannabis in the aftermath of the law’s passage. These conclusions bear a similarity to those in smaller studies that previously found no increase of marijuana use among teenagers when states legalized medical marijuana.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and the New York State Psychiatric Institute funded the study. “Our study findings suggest that the debate over the role of medical marijuana laws in adolescent marijuana use should cease, and that resources should be applied to identifying the factors that do affect risk,” the researchers wrote in the June 16 issue of The Lancet Psychiatry.
Nearly two dozen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and residents of more than a dozen states can use extracts of the plant to treat certain medical conditions. The debate about the plant, specifically its healing properties, has intensified with the release of scientific research that confirms the plant’s ability to kill tumors. However, the potential of addiction and increased experimentation in children remains a pressing concern, even with research that determined the stagnation of cannabis use among teenagers living in California, where medical marijuana has been legalized since the 1990s.
The mounting evidence hasn’t dissuaded some people — including medical professionals — from railing against medical marijuana laws. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) affirmed its opposition to the use of medical marijuana.
“We know marijuana can be very harmful to adolescent health and development,” Seth D. Ammerman, MD, FAAP, a member of the AAP Committee on Substance Abuse, said in the policy statement. “Making it more available to adults — even if restrictions are in place — will increase the access for teens. Just the campaigns to legalize marijuana can have the effect of persuading adolescents that marijuana is not dangerous, which can have a devastating impact on their lifelong health and development.”
Whether lawmakers will heed researchers’ words and abandon this rhetoric has yet to be seen, but state medical marijuana laws seems to be gaining momentum.
Georgia recently opened an electronic registry that thousands of eligible patients could use to ask their doctor the help them weeks after Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a bill into law that would allow usage of medicinal oil for eight medical conditions — including seizure disorders, end-stage cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. This week, legislators in New York are hustling to get critically ill patients, including children, emergency access to medical marijuana before the state’s medical marijuana program begins early next year. President Obama even expressed his support for medical marijuana on a recent CNN documentary.
For some lawmakers, however, hurdles remain in legalizing medical marijuana as critics worry about the potential effect on minors. A bill that would patients’ access to cannabis in Louisiana awaits Gov. Bobby Jindal (R)’s signature, but opponents want him to veto, asserting that there’s a potential for increased addiction rates among children.
Parents and legislators in Colorado have also fought tooth and nail to ensure that children’s access to cannabis is as restrictive as possible. Last year, a committee of researchers and health officials released a 188-page report that pointed out a link between regular adolescent marijuana use and the development of psychotic symptoms and schizophrenia later in life, giving lawmakers even more reason to ensure that children don’t become influenced by changing marijuana laws.
However, medical marijuana might not be culprit. Instead, the deceptive packaging on edible cannabis treats, which may encourage youngsters to consume, could be at fault. Last year, Colorado’s largest pediatric emergency department saw an influx of emergency room admissions because of accidental marijuana ingestion. That situation prompted lawmakers to pass House Bill 1366, which requires state regulators to find rules that make edible products identifiable.
In his comments, Dr. Kevin Hill of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse expressed his hope that state and federal lawmakers can reach a similar consensus on divisive issues like medical marijuana by using empirical and scientific evidence rather than politically charged rhetoric. “[The] growing body of research that includes this study suggests that medical marijuana laws do not increase adolescent use, and future decisions that states make about whether or not to enact medical marijuana laws should be at least partly guided by this evidence,” he states.
By Sam P.K. Collins - Think Progress/June 17, 2015