The National Institutes of Health is out with its latest annual report on adolescent drug use in the United States. One of the most interesting findings was that for the first time since 1981, teen marijuana use was noticeably higher than teen tobacco use. From the NIH:
Marijuana use is now ahead of cigarette smoking on some measures (due to decreases in smoking and recent increases in marijuana use). In 2010, 21.4 percent of high school seniors used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes.
As you can see from the graph, while teen marijuana use this year did increase, the change was very small. Overall, the number of teens using marijuana has remained remarkably stable since the mid-1990′s.
Clearly, the real reason marijuana use is now ahead of cigarette use among teens is because use of tobacco has fallen steadily over the past decade. This fall in tobacco use is largely thanks to regulation, education, taxation, and tougher age restrictions.
This study should blow a hole in the prohibitionists’ most emotionally effective but incorrect argument that legalizing marijuana would be dangerous because it could significantly increase adolescents’ use.
Here we have two substances that we don’t want adolescents to be using. One, marijuana, we try to stop teens from using with blanket prohibition. The other, tobacco, is legal for adults to use but we keep teens from using it through education, regulation and tough age restrictions. The drop in tobacco use clearly shows that regulation and age restrictions of a legal product can be an effective way to reduce adolescents’ use. For the first time since significant efforts against these substances were started in the early 1980′s, we are seeing that sensible regulation of a legal product can result in a low level of adolescent use of a substance than we are seeing with a substance that is prohibited outright.
This latest report should be encouraging news for supporters of marijuana law reform. The drop in tobacco’s use is a vindication of the belief that sensible regulation combined with education and age restrictions can be effective at preventing teens from using a substance. We now have an “illegal drug” that more teens are using than a legal substance which is sold in almost every gas station in America. Faced with that reality, it is hard to continue to logically conclude that blanket prohibition is the only way or even the best way to reduce drug use among adolescents.