Youth marijuana use in Rhode Island declined significantly in 2022 compared to two years earlier, even as legalization went into effect and COVID-related social isolation restrictions were lifted, according to a recent state study.
The Rhode Island Student Survey from the state’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) asked more than 20,000 high school students in 23 districts about substance use trends and other social issues.
Several national surveys have identified recent drops in teen cannabis use even as more states enact legalization. It’s a trend that’s been observed over the past decade, but experts have said that the precipitous declines that were seen in 2020 and 2021 were partly attributable to social isolation amid lockdown orders from the coronavirus pandemic.
With that, one might expect to see a slight bounce back in marijuana consumption as students transitioned back to in-person learning last year. Yet the new Rhode Island data shows a “statistically significant decrease” in the use of cannabis, alcohol and e-cigarettes among high school students.
Past 30-day use of marijuana stood at 15 percent last year, compared to 17.2 percent in 2020, according to the survey, which BHDDH conducts every other year in partnership with the Department of Health and Department of Education. Also, about “15 percent of students have used marijuana by age 16, compared to 20 percent in 2020.”
Lifetime use among high school students similarly declined, from 28 percent in 2020 to 23 percent last year.
And while Rhode Island legalized marijuana in 2022—with possession becoming lawful for adults in May of that year and the first retailers opening in December—students say it’s become more difficult to access marijuana.
Recreational retailers didn’t launch until December 2022—months after the youth survey ended in June—but the state also has a long-standing medical cannabis program with licensed dispensaries, and Rhode Island additionally neighbors states that had previously enacted adult-use legalization like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
In 2018, 67 percent of students said “it would be easy for them to obtain” cannabis. That dropped ten percentage points in 2020, to 57 percent. And it fell again last year amid reform developments, reaching 52 percent.
While the COVID factor noted in other recent surveys may well have contributed to declines in youth marijuana use, the sustained decrease found in this report is still generally consistent with longer-term trends.
For example, a study published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) last month similarly showed that rates of current and lifetime cannabis use among high school students have continued to drop amid the state-level legalization movement.
What was especially notable about the data is that it found high school student use was trending up from 2009-2013—before legal marijuana dispensaries started opening—but has been generally on the decline since then. The first state recreational legalization laws were approved by voters in 2012, with regulated retail sales beginning in 2014.
These trends conflict with one of the most common prohibitionist arguments against marijuana legalization. Despite their claims that legalizing cannabis for adults would drive up teen usage, studies and surveys—including those conducted or funded by the federal government—have repeatedly shown otherwise.
A National Institute on Drug Abuse- (NIDA) funded study that was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year also found that state-level cannabis legalization is not associated with increased youth use.
The study demonstrated that “youth who spent more of their adolescence under legalization were no more or less likely to have used cannabis at age 15 years than adolescents who spent little or no time under legalization.”
Yet another federally funded study from Michigan State University researchers that was published in the journal PLOS One last summer found that “cannabis retail sales might be followed by the increased occurrence of cannabis onsets for older adults” in legal states, “but not for underage persons who cannot buy cannabis products in a retail outlet.”
Meanwhile, adolescent marijuana use in Colorado declined significantly in 2021, according to the latest version of a biennial state survey released last year.
A study out of California last year found that “there was 100 percent compliance with the ID policy to keep underage patrons from purchasing marijuana directly from licensed outlets.”
The Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR), an alcohol and tobacco industry-backed marijuana policy group, also released a report last year analyzing data on youth marijuana use rates amid the state-level legalization movement.
Another federally funded study, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), was released in October showing that youth marijuana use dropped in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic and as more states moved to enact legalization.
Further, an analysis published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2021 year found that enacting legalization has an overall impact on adolescent cannabis consumption that is “statistically indistinguishable from zero.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics also analyzed youth surveys of high school students from 2009 to 2019 and concluded that there’s been “no measurable difference” in the percentage of those in grades 9-12 who reported consuming cannabis at least once in the past 30 days.
There was “no change” in the rate of current cannabis use among high school students from 2009-2019, an earlier CDC survey found. When analyzed using a quadratic change model, however, lifetime marijuana consumption decreased during that period.
Another study released by Colorado officials in 2020 showed that youth cannabis consumption in the state “has not significantly changed since legalization” in 2012, though methods of consumption are diversifying.
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