Does Legalizing Medical Marijuana Lead Teens to Smoke More Pot?

As more states legalize medical marijuana, as well as pot for recreational use, one of the biggest concerns among addiction experts and parents alike is that the greater availability of cannabis will lead more teens to start smoking pot, or smoke more. A brand-new study published by The Lancet Psychiatry may help assuage some of those fears.

A team of researchers led by Deborah Hasin, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City, studied the pot-smoking patterns of more than a million American teens ages 13 to 18, in 48 states, from 1991 to 2014. While rates of marijuana use were higher in 21 of the 23 states plus the District of Columbia with medical marijuana laws, the researchers established that the higher rate of pot use had no link to legalization. Rather, whether or not kids smoked may have more to do with attitudes and beliefs toward marijuana use – for instance, whether pot-smoking is accepted or frowned upon or regarded as harmful by parents, teachers, neighbors and others, notes Dr. Hasin, who adds that research into the link between societal attitudes and rate of marijuana use is still ongoing.

A 2014 report, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found similar results to the The Lancet Psychiatry study. That research showed no link between legalization of pot for medical use and the appeal of the drug among teens.

Promising Research for Protecting Teens

This research is particularly reassuring when considering how compounds found in pot, called cannabinoids, can damage the developing adolescent brain, permanently lowering IQ and sometimes triggering mental health issues like schizophrenia. Since the brain continues developing into the mid-20s, introducing chemical alterations during the teen years interferes with an intense period of brain maturation. This is also why teens are more vulnerable to marijuana addiction than are adults.

Does Legalizing Medical Marijuana Lead Teens to Smoke More Pot?And, in fact, it is these possible profoundly negative effects that have made research like this a high priority, says Hasin. “The harmful outcomes of early adolescent marijuana use were an important motivator for the study … Determining the causes of such use so it can be prevented is very important,” she says. “I hope that our study will direct investigators to put their resources into studying factors affecting adolescent marijuana use other than medical marijuana laws.”

While Hasin hopes that these findings help in the fight against teen drug use, she admits that even her research shouldn’t discount the theory, held by many addiction specialists, that greater access to and acceptance of marijuana leads to more use. “Medical marijuana laws aside,” she says, “many studies show that more positive attitudes [toward smoking pot] lead toward greater use.” And that’s something that parents can do: By discouraging their child from smoking pot, they’re likely to do far more to influence their son or daughter’s choices than any law legalizing marijuana.

Do you think the legalization of medical marijuana prompts more teens to smoke pot?

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