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What’s Happened With Teen Drug Use Since Marijuana Legalization?

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What’s Happened With Teen Drug Use Since Marijuana Legalization?

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New data from the federal government’s Monitoring the Future survey shows that lifetime use of drugs by high school seniors are at some of the lowest levels ever recorded in the survey’s 42-year history. Meanwhile, lifetime use of marijuana by those same teens hasn’t budged.

“Lifetime use” refers to whether or not a teen has ever tried that drug, whether they continue with their use or not.

Opponents of marijuana legalization made the argument that it would send the wrong message to the children. Legalization, they argued, would make kids think marijuana use as OK, leading them to try what was previous considered a crime for adults.

But the data seem to show that legalizing marijuana for adults doesn’t do a thing to change marijuana for kids.

In 1979, the survey recorded that 60.4 percent of high school seniors had tried marijuana. Since 2010, that figure has hovered between about 44 to 45 percent, even as states passed marijuana legalization.

Another concern of opponents of legalization was the effect marijuana would have as a “gateway drug.” Since most heroin, cocaine, and meth users started with marijuana, their flawed reasoning goes, increased marijuana use will lead to increased drug use.

Notwithstanding that marijuana use hasn’t gone up, teen use of drugs hasn’t increased. Remarkably, some of the lowest use rates recorded have happened in the last two years.

In 1982, 42.8 percent of 12th graders reported having tried any drug other than marijuana. Today, that number is well below half the rate, at 19.5 percent, the lowest such rate ever recorded.

Drugs for which the lowest-ever rate of high school senior lifetime use has been recorded this year include inhalants, ecstasy, heroin, amphetamines, sedatives, prescriptions, cigarettes, and steroids.

In 2016, cocaine and alcohol notched their lowest-ever rates, with slight upticks for 2017. Meth’s lowest rate was in 2015 and hallucinogens saw their lowest rate in 2014.

Most impressively, since 2012, almost every lifetime use rate measured falls in the bottom ten lowest rates ever recorded.

Keep these figures in mind the next time you hear some politician going on about how “we’ve never had a drug problem as bad as this.” While the escalating deaths from drug overdose are a vital concern, among the nation’s teenagers, we’ve never seen the lifetime use of drugs as low as this.


Click the graphic for a draft download of the Lifetime Use Data from Monitoring the Future.
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