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Youth Marijuana Use In Colorado Continues To Decline Since Legalization Took Effect, Contradicting Prohibitionist Fears

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Rates of youth marijuana use in Colorado declined slightly in 2023—remaining significantly lower than before the state became one of the first in the U.S. to legalize cannabis for adults, contradicting prohibitionist arguments that the reform would lead to increased underage consumption.

That’s according to the latest biannual Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which found that past-30-day use of cannabis among high schoolers was at 12.8 percent in 2023, a dip from the 13.3 percent reported in 2021.

In fact, since the first retail cannabis shops opened in Colorado in 2014, youth marijuana use has gradually declined. It’s fallen nearly 7 percentage points since 2013, when past-30-day use among high schoolers was at 19.7 percent.

The latest data is all the more notable when considering the dip since 2021, as some expected rates would have increased given that COVID social distancing restrictions were lifted and students generally returned to in-person schooling.

“We were very happy to see that dramatic historical drop, but assumed that the drop was at least partially because many youth were schooling from home during the pandemic and not around peers, which was why the dramatic decrease occurred,” Eric Escudero, communications director for the Denver’s Department of Excise & Licenses and the Office of Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “We were bracing for a massive surge today in youth who said they used marijuana in Denver. And it did not happen.”

In addition to the regulatory safeguards that have been put in place under legalization, Escudero also pointed to the government’s cannabis tax-funded investment in youth prevention.

“Denver led the way as the first American city with legalized recreational marijuana, and we made a promise that we would use a portion of marijuana tax dollars on youth prevention,” he said. “We have kept that promise with one of the most highly successful youth marijuana usage prevention campaigns in U.S. history.”

For advocates, the new report reinforces a key argument in favor of adult-use legalization. That is, enacting a system of regulated sales where ID checks are mandated would mitigate youth access issues and actually lead to decreased underage use.

To that point, the Colorado survey also shows that perceived ease of access is also down among youth, with 40.4 percent of respondents saying it would be “sort of easy” or “very easy” to obtain cannabis in 2023. By contrast, 54.9 percent said the same in 2013 prior to the launch of legal marijuana sales to adults.

Last year, Colorado marijuana regulators announced that out of 285 underage sales checks conducted at state-licensed cannabis stores in 2023, there were only four failures—a compliance rate of about 99 percent.

Multiple studies have debunked the idea that marijuana legalization increases youth use, with most finding that consumption trends are either stable or decrease after the reform is implemented.

For example, a research letter published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in April said there’s no evidence that states’ adoption of laws to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults have led to an increase in youth use of cannabis.

Another JAMA-published study earlier that month that similarly found that neither legalization nor the opening of retail stores led to increases in youth cannabis use.

Data from a recent Washington State survey of adolescent and teenage students found overall declines in both lifetime and past-30-day marijuana use since legalizations, with striking drops in recent years that held steady through 2023. The results also indicate that perceived ease of access to cannabis among underage students has generally fallen since the state enacted legalization for adults in 2012.

A separate study late last year also found that Canadian high-school students reported it was more difficult to access marijuana since the government legalized the drug nationwide in 2019. The prevalence of current cannabis use also fell during the study period, from 12.7 percent in 2018–19 to 7.5 percent in 2020–21, even as retail sales of marijuana expanded across the country.

In December, meanwhile, a U.S. health official said that teen marijuana use has not increased “even as state legalization has proliferated across the country.”

“There have been no substantial increases at all,” said Marsha Lopez, chief of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) epidemiological research branch. “In fact, they have not reported an increase in perceived availability either, which is kind of interesting.”

Another earlier analysis from CDC found that rates of current and lifetime cannabis use among high school students have continued to drop amid the legalization movement.

A study of high school students in Massachusetts that was published last November found that youth in that state were no more likely to use marijuana after legalization, though more students perceived their parents as cannabis consumers after the policy change.

A separate NIDA-funded study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2022 also found that state-level cannabis legalization was 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 2022 study from Michigan State University researchers, published in the journal PLOS One, 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.”

The trends were observed despite adult use of marijuana and certain psychedelics reaching “historic highs” in 2022, according to separate data released last year.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based managing editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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