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PORTLAND, Ore. — American youngsters are ditching alcohol for cannabis, according to a new study.

Cannabis use among teens and adolescents increased by 245 percent between 2000 and 2020, with the largest rise coming since 2017 as many states decriminalized the drug. Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University also found that teen drinking also steadily declined over the same period.

The team discovered over 338,000 instances of marijuana abuse or misuse among children between the ages of six and 18 during the 20-year study. Just over half were male (58.3%) and more than 80 percent of all reported cases were among teens between 13 and 18. More than 32 percent of these cases led to what the researchers describe as “minor clinical outcomes.”

The report, published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, also showed a change in other substance abuse habits over time. For example, dextromethorphan was the most reported substance over the study period, but this peaked in 2006 and has decreased since.

Also in 2000, most cases involved alcohol use, but this has steadily declined over the years. In contrast, marijuana cases remained relatively stable from 2000 to 2009, then steadily rose starting in 2011, with an even more dramatic rise in cases from 2017 to 2020.

Are edibles fueling this rise?

Experts analyzing the data attribute the rise in marijuana use to the increased popularity of edible cannabis products, now widely available across the country.

“Ethanol abuse cases exceeded the number of marijuana cases every year from 2000 until 2013,” says Dr. Adrienne Hughes, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, in a media release.

“Since 2014, marijuana exposure cases have exceeded ethanol cases every year, and by a greater amount each year than the prior.”

Edible marijuana use showed the highest average monthly increase compared with all other forms, suggesting that adolescents have moved away from smoking weed and are relying on alternative forms of consumption. Marijuana extracts, such as those used in cannabis vaping products, were also increasingly popular.

“These edible and vaping products are often marketed in ways that are attractive to young people, and they are considered more discrete and convenient,” Hughes continues.

“Compared to smoking cannabis, which typically results in an immediate high, intoxication from edible forms of marijuana usually takes several hours, which may lead some individuals to consume greater amounts and experience unexpected and unpredictable highs.”

The dramatic increase in child cannabis use since 2017 coincides with a wave of decriminalization legislation in the U.S. As of 2022, cannabis is legal for adult recreational use in 19 states and for medical use in 36 states.

Legalization leading to more childhood exposure

While cannabis is only legal for adults and not children, the authors of the study say the policy change has made the drug more accessible to children and adolescents and contributed to a perception that it is safe.

“Our study describes an upward trend in marijuana abuse exposures among youth, especially those involving edible products,” Dr. Hughes reports. “These findings highlight an ongoing concern about the impact of rapidly evolving cannabis legalization on this vulnerable population.”

Along with cannabis, the study revealed high levels of over-the-counter medication abuse amongst teenagers. Between 2001 and 2016, the highest number of drug abuse cases related to dextromethorphan, an over-the-counter cold and cough medicine.

Oral antihistamines were also among the most misused substances in this study. Deaths from drug abuse were rare, however, occurring in 450 young people (0.1% of cases). It was more common in males and in older teens between 16 and 18. These deaths were also more likely to occur after children abused opioids.

Although there were 57,488 incidents involving children between six and 12 years-old, these cases did not usually include traditional drugs — but rather vitamins, plants, melatonin, hand sanitizers, and other objects.

South West News Service writer Danny Halpin contributed to this report.

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