Teen Cannabis Use Plummets Amid California Legalization, Data Reveal

Published on August 22, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
It's now legal to possess and enjoy cannabis, privately, in Arizona. (Julia Sumpter for Leafly)

Cannabis use reported by high schoolers in California dropped significantly amid the legalization and regulation of the botanical drug for adults ages 21 and older.

Data from the large, independent California Healthy Kids Survey released this week indicate:

  • Seventh grade pot use dropped 47% from 2013 to 2017. (Californians legalized cannabis in 2016.)
  • Among 9th graders, reported cannabis use dropped 25% during the study period.
  • Among 11th graders, reported cannabis use dropped 16% during the study period.
  • The percentage of teens reporting using cannabis multiple times and/or repeatedly within the past 30 days declined for all age groups.

For Adults Only

“The declines in substance use are striking.”

“The declines in substance use are striking. Almost all major indicators of alcohol and marijuana use, overall prevalence as well as frequent or heavy use, are down by 3 or more points,” researchers concluded.

Funding for the survey of teens is nonpartisan. It comes from taxes spent by the California Department of Health Care Services in collaboration with the California Department of Education. This survey of 45,264 students came from the 2015–17 administration of the CHKS to a randomly selected representative sample of California 7th, 9th, and 11th graders. It’s the 16th biennial statewide student survey, which began in 1985 and became mandated by the California Legislature in 1991. Here is a link to the CHKS 2015-2017 results.

Declining Trend Amid Rise of Legalization

California has had legal medical cannabis since 1996 and dispensaries for adults 18 and older since the early 2000s. Yet “marijuana use has been declining among students,” researchers reported.

Legalization critics note that the study period does not cover more recent developments. Retail adult use cannabis began after the CHKS study period ended. There are drugged driving and long-term health dangers, anti-cannabis groups like Project SAM warn.

“How the recent legalization of marijuana use for adults in California effects [sic] the declining trend among youth warrants attention,” the survey report concluded. “The next biennial survey will be of particular interest to shed light on whether the change in state marijuana laws affect these findings.”

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Researchers could not say why fewer teens report using cannabis.

“Current results suggest that two factors may help to explain these declines: (1) increases in parental, peer, and, to a lesser extent, personal disapproval; and (2) declines in the percentage of students reporting it was very easy to get alcohol and marijuana.”

Legalization supporters said the survey result mirror data from other legalization states, which all share a age limit of 21 and strong anti-youth smoking campaigns. California legalization Proposition 64 earmarks millions of dollars each year in cannabis excise and sales taxes for anti-marijuana ads aimed at youth.

“These initial reports confirm that legalizing and regulating cannabis doesn’t increase youth marijuana use, but rather it has the opposite effect,” said Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML. “The fact that the biggest drop in reported use came from younger age groups is a particularly encouraging indicator of the success of regulation.”

Cannabis arrests are a primary entry point for the school-to-prison pipeline, activists note. Cannabis laws are enforced disproportionately on black people and other people of color, as compared to caucasians, ACLU studies have concluded.

“It’s time to stop trying to ‘send a message’ to young people about drugs and instead implement sound, science-based policies that best protect our children and public safety, along with our privacy and human rights,” concluded Komp.

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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