PULLMAN, Wash. — Surprising research from Washington State University suggests widespread cannabis legalization may actually promote less marijuana use among teens. Researchers say more high school seniors reported vaping cannabis in states where it is legal only for medical purposes in comparison to other states where cannabis is fully legal for all adults.
Even the study authors themselves say they were shocked by their results.
All in all, 27 percent of surveyed 12th graders living in medical marijuana states reported vaping cannabis. On the other hand, 19 percent of high school seniors living in states that still prohibited cannabis, or had legalized it completely for all adults, said the same.
“More than a quarter of our youth in medical states were vaping cannabis. That’s a lot,” said Christian Maynard, a WSU sociology Ph.D. student and first author of the study, in a university release. “We were expecting medical and adult use states would be more similar. Instead, we didn’t find any statistical difference between prohibited and adult use states.”
In collaboration with WSU sociologist Jennifer Schwartz, Maynard analyzed responses from 3,770 high school seniors who had filled out the 2020 Monitoring the Future survey, an ongoing project that’s been surveying U.S. youth since 1975. A separate cohort of 556 participants was also analyzed. This subset answered questions about access to cannabis vaping products and risk perceptions.
This led to the finding that 62 percent of teens in medical marijuana states reported very easy access to cannabis vaping cartridges or “carts.” Moreover, only 31 percent consider regular cannabis use to be a great risk.
Across both prohibited and adult use states, fewer high school seniors (52%) reported having easy access to cartridges. More teens also reported the opinion that regular cannabis use is risky; 40 percent in prohibited states and 36 percent in adult use states.
Maynard admits that the research team can’t say right now what is driving these differences in marijuana use and perceptions among teens. That being said, he has a few ideas regarding possible factors at play.
“It’s possible the context of saying cannabis is for medical reasons is contributing to the fact that youth view it as less risky,” Maynard explains. “The difference in availability may also be that adult use states are providing legal cannabis to a wider range of people, which may in turn tamp down on the illegal market, and an adolescent can’t go to a dispensary.”
More research must be conducted in order to ascertain the reasons behind this difference, Maynard stresses.
Vaping cuts into progress to stop marijuana use in teens
On a broader scale, while the traditional use of both marijuana and tobacco has steadily declined among U.S. teens in recent years, the emergence of vaping has bucked that positive trend. Across the entire 45 year history of the Monitoring the Future study, the ‘cannabis vaping during the past 30 days’ category made the second biggest single-year jump in 2019 for any substance. Only nicotine vaping made a bigger jump.
Today, vaping is still very popular, despite a crisis of related lung injuries in 2019 and 2020 that led to more than 2,000 hospitalizations and 68 deaths. Many of those cases were traced back to cartridges sold outside of stores that contained Vitamin E, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In conclusion, Maynard believes parents and educators alike need to focus more on teaching kids the dangers tied to vaping.
“Like it or not, cannabis legalization seems to be happening across the country,” he concludes. “It’s very important to talk with adolescents. We know that at a younger age, when the brain is developing that cannabis is associated with harmful side effects. It’s also not safe to buy cannabis carts off the streets. You don’t know what they’re putting in those unregulated carts.”
The study is published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence Reports.