A study conducted by researchers affiliated with Michigan State University in America found that cannabis use in under-age people does not increase in relation to a state’s adoption of a legal adult-use (21 and over), recreational cannabis market. 

Researchers published the results of their study in the journal NIH in July 2022, two months after Rhode Island became the 20th US state to legalise cannabis for recreational use for those over 21.

The study shows that traditionally the age at which young people in America first try cannabis peaks between 15 to 17 years old. However, the researchers hypothesised that once states legalised and placed an age limit on recreational cannabis, young people would follow the same pattern of behaviour as with alcohol, where people deliberately delay their first drink until after they reach 21 years old (the legal drinking age).

“Members of our research group hypothesized that age-specific cannabis use incidence would show a similar pattern developing in jurisdictions that legalized cannabis: Once the legal minimum age for recreational cannabis use was set at 21 in some states, many young adults will wait until cannabis use is legal for them to try it.”

To obtain their findings, researchers examined data about cannabis usage patterns from a cohort that was nationally representative and totalled 819,543 people. This enabled them to determine if legalisation affected the total number of people who started using cannabis for the first time.

The findings from the study showed that cannabis use in those under 21 stayed stable after a state’s adoption of a new recreational market, however, it showed that first-time recreational use in those 21 years and older increased following the liberalisation of legislation. 

The research is significant, because consumption among young people is often cited as a significant risk by campaigners against cannabis legalisation. Furthermore, up to now, there hasn’t been any other published research that explores specifically the uptake of cannabis use in young people post legalisation.

“Policy-makers and the voters who elect these policy-makers cannot make the best judgments in the absence of evidence, unless their decisions are to be based on potentially erroneous prejudices or beliefs.

“We can see no prior research on cannabis use incidence post recreational cannabis legalization (RCL). The published literature to this point has evaluated prevalence of recent use, prevalence of cannabis use disorder (CUD), and frequency of use.”

Concluding, researchers said, “This study contributes novel estimates of how liberalised cannabis policies within US jurisdictions might have influenced occurrence of newly incident cannabis use in the underage (<21 years) and in the adult populations, now allowed to purchase cannabis products in retail outlets.

“The evidence from this study is not perfect, but the estimates provide an evidence base that can be judged in relation to an important question – namely, should we worry about underage cannabis use when adults are allowed to buy cannabis products in retail shops? And might the occurrence of adult-onset newly incident cannabis use increase if this policy change is made? The answer to the first question at this point seems to be that there has been no policy influence on cannabis incidence in the underage adolescent population after adults have been allowed to buy cannabis in retail shops. The answer to the second question at this point indicates a tangible uptick in the occurrence of newly incident cannabis use among adults who otherwise might never have tried cannabis.”

No increase in adolescent cannabis use after legalisation, study finds

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