Over the past several decades, opponents of marijuana legalization have fretted that legally allowing weed for recreational purposes will lead to more pot use among teens. But a new survey suggests that's not happening so far: Despite the recent enactment of legalization in four states and Washington, DC, the 2015 Monitoring the Future survey found teen marijuana use held steady in the past year.
Some media outlets and advocates declared a victory for legalization with this data. The Washington Post stated, "The case for marijuana legalization just got stronger." The Marijuana Policy Project similarly claimed, "National survey on teen marijuana use debunks anti-legalization theories."
I'm going to go a little more cautious and boring here: I think it's way too early to say anything about the full effects of marijuana legalization. In fact, I think the surveys released so far are useless for judging legalization's full effects.
The biggest and most obvious reason to be skeptical of making too much of the survey findings is that they're national numbers. The figures would perhaps be more useful if they broke down to the state level, letting us compare a legal pot state like Colorado with nearby Kansas, where pot is still illegal for all purposes. But since they're national figures, we don't even know for sure if the nationwide drop in pot use is indicative of anything that's going on in legal pot states — it's possible there's an uptick in pot use among teens in states with legalization, even as the national trend is downward.
(Although maybe not: A federal report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that rates of adolescent marijuana use did not change in Colorado and Washington state between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.)
But the less obvious — and more important — reason to be skeptical of the figures is that the primary concern with legalization won't show up after a year, or even several years, of legalization. That concern is Big Marijuana — the idea that big companies will move into the marijuana industry after legalization, mass-produce and advertise their product as commercialization takes hold, and over time push America toward using more pot through easier access, lower prices, and a sexy, fun image.
True commercialization simply hasn't happened — yet. Some pot businesses, particularly from Colorado and California, are branching out nationally to other places where it's legal, but there's no Anheuser-Busch or Philip Morris for cannabis so far. But fully legal pot is still really new — the first two states to legalize, Colorado and Washington, only allowed recreational sales last year. As legalization spreads and the industry grows, we almost certainly will see bigger companies take hold of the market.
As Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at New York University's Marron Institute, often tells me, "The bad risks are mostly long-term. We're in the situation in which the guy jumped off the Empire State Building, and as he passed the 42nd floor somebody said, 'How's it going?' And he said, 'So far, so good!'"
Why commercialization could lead to more marijuana use and abuse
The major concern with full legalization is that big, for-profit companies will get into the marijuana industry and market the drug in ways that encourage widespread use and abuse. Take, for instance, Big Alcohol, which has successfully lobbied to block tax increases and regulations on alcohol — all while marketing its products as fun and sexy during television programs as big as the Super Bowl, which is seen by millions of people, including children.
"If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country," Kevin Sabet, the co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told me in March. "But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things."
Drug policy experts like Kleiman and Beau Kilmer at the RAND Corporation point to Colorado, where one study of the state's pot market conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue found the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in the state made up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. For the marijuana industry, that makes the heaviest users the most lucrative customers.
If marijuana companies are able to act like the tobacco and alcohol industries have in the past, there's a good chance that they'll convince more Americans to try or even regularly use marijuana, and some of the heaviest users may use more. And as these companies increase their profits, they'll be able to influence lawmakers in a way that could stifle regulations or other policies that curtail abuse.
Why is abuse such a big concern, particularly for a drug that has very few direct health harms? As Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at of Carnegie Mellon University, told me in February, "At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you'll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer."
Moreover, some of the research suggests that prohibiting marijuana does reduce pot use and abuse. A comprehensive study from researchers at RAND found that states that legalized medical marijuana dispensaries saw increases in marijuana dependence among youth and adults and overall pot use among adults, suggesting that people were somewhat deterred from using because the drug was less accessible before medical legalization.
All of this will take time to bubble up. So while it's certainly encouraging to see that teens aren't using more marijuana so far, it remains very much possible that all of that will change in the future.
Even with commercialization, legalization could still be worth it
Despite the concerns surrounding commercialization, and even if it increases levels of pot use, it's still entirely possible to support legalization. It's a matter of weighing the pros and cons. And the downsides to not legalizing are definitely big — including more arrests each year over a comparatively mild drug, and more drug-related violence around the world.
In the US, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for pot possession each year, ripping communities and families apart as people are thrown in jail or prison. There are enormous racial disparities in these arrests, with black people 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as their white counterparts despite being only 1.3 times as likely to use the drug.
Around the world, drug cartels and gangs use profits from marijuana shipped to the US to maintain their stranglehold over trafficking routes, particularly through Latin America. Marijuana sales to the US make up a significant chunk of drug cartels' drug export revenue: as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to previous estimates from the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (2012) and the RAND Corporation (2010). This gives these criminal groups more money to carry out violent trafficking operations in much of Latin America, which contribute to the killing and kidnapping of tens of thousands of people each year, and have spawned horrifying stories of cartels beheading and torturing people. And some of that violence occurs in the US, where gangs fight over turf to position themselves to sell illegal drugs.
Full legalization directly addresses the problems caused by prohibition
Full legalization directly addresses the problems caused by prohibition. It reduces arrests for marijuana use by more than 90 percent, according to an analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance of arrests in Colorado following legalization there. It also shifts sales from the black market to the gray market, where people sell legal pot under the table, as well as to the legal market — weakening or even eliminating a major source of revenue for drug cartels and gangs, leaving them less able to continue funding their violent acts.
Of course, all of this comes with the possibility that more people will abuse marijuana. But marijuana is a relatively mild drug — studies show it's much less likely to cause accidents than more dangerous drugs like alcohol, and there's no evidence that pot directly causes health problems. And there are ways to legalize that would reduce the risks attached to commercialization — for example, a report by the RAND Corporation found that states could reduce access and prices by allowing only home growing and nonprofit sales, or having state governments directly manage sales like they do under state monopolies of alcohol sales.
So it's certainly good for supporters of legalization that the latest surveys don't show an increase in use for now. But if future, more useful surveys find an increase as a result of legalization and commercialization, it's still possible that legalization could be a net good — it's just a matter of weighing the good (fewer drug-related violence and arrests and more personal freedom) and the bad (potentially more use and abuse).