One of the most oft-cited arguments by prohibitionists against marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in 2012 was that it will send the “wrong” message to teenagers and more would start using marijuana as a result. Yet the year after voters approved legalization in Colorado and Washington State, national teen marijuana use rates around the country were actually down slightly, according National Survey on Drug Use and Health. From the survey’s findings regarding 12-17 year olds:

Figure 2.7

The rate of current marijuana use among youths aged 12 to 17 in 2013 (7.1 percent) was similar to the 2012 rate (7.2 percent) and the rates in 2004 to 2010 (ranging from 6.7 to 7.6 percent); however, it was lower than the rates in 2002, 2003, and 2011 (ranging from 7.9 to 8.2 percent). […]

Among all youths aged 12 to 17, an estimated 4.8 percent had used marijuana for the first time within the past year in 2013, which was similar to the rate in 2012 (5.0 percent). As a percentage of those aged 12 to 17 who had not used marijuana prior to the past year (i.e., those at risk for initiation), the youth marijuana initiation rate in 2013 (5.5 percent) was similar to the rate in 2012 (5.7 percent).

We saw the same trend at the local level in Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health found “Thirty-day marijuana use [among Colorado high school students] fell from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013, and lifetime use declined from 39 percent to 37 percent during the same two years.”

Basically, the prohibitionists’ argument boils down to the premise that young people are so incredibly stupid that there is no way to tell them they shouldn’t do something unless we spend billions locking people in jail for doing it. Of course that ignores the fact that we have very successfully messaged to young people that tobacco use is a bad idea for them without making it illegal for adults. Prohibition is not the only or even the best tool for informing people about what is and is not a smart choice.

Since voters in two states legalized and regulated marijuana for adults, the use rate among teens is effectively unchanged. The electorate’s support for marijuana reform didn’t cause a spike in youth consumption.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy

Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at

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