Effects of Decriminalization and Legalization on Adolescent Substance Use

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"• Most 12th graders felt that they would be little affected personally by the legalization of either the sale or the use of marijuana. Over half (53%) of the respondents said that they would not use the drug even if it were legal to buy and use, while others indicated that they would use it about as often as they do now (14%) or less often (1%). Only 9% said they would use it more often than they do at present, while 13% thought they would try it. Another 11% said they did not know how their behavior would be affected if marijuana were legalized. Still, this amounts to 22% of all 12th graders, or about one in five, who thought that they would try marijuana, or that their use would increase, if marijuana were legalized.
"• A study of the effects of decriminalization by several states during the late 1970s, based on MTF data, found no evidence of any impact on the use of marijuana among young people, nor on attitudes and beliefs concerning its use.13 However, it should be noted that decriminalization falls well short of the full legalization posited in the questions here. Moreover, the situation today is very different from the one in the late 1970s, with more peer disapproval and more rigorous enforcement of drug laws, at least until very recently. Some more recent studies suggest that there might be an impact of decriminalization, because 'youths living in decriminalized states are significantly more likely to report currently using marijuana.'14 One study using MTF data shows that prevalence of marijuana use among 12th-grade Californian students significantly increased in the two years after decriminalization went into effect in 2011, and youth attitudes also became significantly more permissive.15 As more states approve full legalization for adults, (as has occurred in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC), it seems quite possible that attitudes about and use of marijuana will change. Declines in perceived risk and disapproval of marijuana would seem the most likely attitudinal changes, and such changes may well lead to increased use among youth."


Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2015: Volume I, Secondary school students. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, p. 398. Available at http://monitoringthefuture.org...

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