As Legalization Spreads,
Teen Marijuana Use Returns

For some time through the 1990s and early-2000s, marijuana use among teens was trending down. Then, as states began legalizing the drug for medicinal and recreational use, usage rates among younger demographics began to increase again.

Younger people walking
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As marijuana became increasingly legal and accepted as a medicinal substance and a recreational drug, teens and young adults saw the drug as increasingly safer and “normalized.” Usage statistics have gone up as a result, and that bodes poorly for young people's health and safety.

Marijuana Use on the Rise

A study based out of Washington State serves as a good indicator of what may be going on in the rest of the country (or at least in the states that have legalized cannabis). The study sought to examine whether or not young people began using marijuana in significant quantities and more regularly following the drug's legalization in 2012. The youth surveyed were interviewed regarding their marijuana use habits both before legalization and after it. According to the research, young people were more likely to use marijuana after legalization than before it.

This is concerning news because it means increasing marijuana legalization may be working against the hard-won trend of decreasing teen drug use. If marijuana legalization leads to more young people using drugs, shouldn't states reconsider legalizing the substance?

According to lead study author Jennifer Bailey, an investigator in the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington in Seattle, “When we think about marijuana legalization, a worry is that underage use may go up. Early use and heavy use during adolescence can have a lot of negative health consequences, then and later in life, so we don't want teen use to be going up. A teen usage rate that holds steady isn't good enough if it would normally be going down.” She concluded her warning saying: “We need to devote more attention to prevention of adolescent use in the context of legalization because we want to keep the decreases we've been seeing before legalization was implemented."

"We need to devote more attention to prevention of adolescent use in the context of legalization because we want to keep the decreases we've been seeing before legalization was implemented."  

Bailey and her team surveyed 230 young people, questioning them as to whether or not they had used marijuana before or after legalization (if at all). Across the boards, the younger the teen was, the less likely they were to use marijuana, but all teenagers, if they did use marijuana, were more likely to have used it post-legalization than prior to legalization.

Marijuana is Harmful

The above revelation is concerning. Marijuana use has proven harmful effects. And for those who use marijuana at a young age, those effects can be far more serious. For example, long-term use of marijuana can affect brain development. When people begin using marijuana in their teen years, this effect is particularly pronounced because their brains are still forming. Marijuana use during one's youth can lead to impaired thinking, memory loss, difficulty learning, etc.

There is also reason to believe that using marijuana in one's youth may lead to further drug use, either with more marijuana use or with other drugs. For example, studies done on rats show that exposure to THC results in a distorted and altered reward system, thus increasing the likelihood that the animal will self-administer other drugs (like heroin) when given the opportunity to do so.

Woman student
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For a look at more long-term effects, not only is marijuana use linked to school dropout and lower educational attainment, but marijuana use has also been proven to have permanent effects on the developing brains of teens. And there is a cumulative effect here. The more one uses, the longer they use, and the earlier they start, the more likely those effects will be severe and even continue long after the individual has ceased marijuana use.

Further research has also shown that heavy adolescent marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of being poor and unmarried in one's midlife. Lower-income, more significant anxiety, school dropout, poor socioeconomic condition, and poor mental state were also factors in adults who had used marijuana heavily in their adolescent years.

Signs of Marijuana Use—Know What to Look For:

If you are a concerned parent or a loved one of a teen or young adult who you think may be using marijuana, look for the following signs:

  • Quick, loud talking and abrupt bursts of laughter (indicative of the early stages of marijuana intoxication).
  • Sleepy, stuporous, lethargic (indicative of the later stages of marijuana intoxication).
  • A noticeable drop in concentration, coordination, and focus.
  • Forgetfulness in conversation, often communicating the same concept more than once.
  • Bloodshot eyes, inflammation in the whites of the eyes.
  • Dull, inattentive, slow-moving, seeming dim and shiftless.
  • Lung irritation, uncontrollable coughing.
  • An odor similar to burnt rope on the individual's clothing, hair, or breath.
  • Seeming to overestimate time intervals, distorted perception of the passage of time.
  • Increased appetite and a craving for sweet, salty food.
  • Possession of marijuana paraphernalia, such as packs of rolling paper, pipes, bongs, roach clips, etc.
  • The individual may also express or exhibit discomfort over a dry mouth or throat.
  • They may also experience an increase in heartbeat or pulse rate. Marijuana use may increase the heart rate by as much as 50 percent.
  • One should also be on the lookout for marijuana withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, stomach pain, aggression, and anxiety.

Treatment for Marijuana Addiction

There's no doubt that marijuana use is increasing among teen and young adult demographics. If your teen or young adult son or daughter has gotten caught up in this crisis, the important thing is to get help now.

Marijuana addiction carries a genuine risk with it, only one of which is that marijuana use may open the door to other drug use patterns. In addition to that, someone who is addicted to marijuana may drive under the influence of the drug and get in an accident, or may steal, or commit other crimes to get the drug. They may end up going to prison because of their drug use. Accidents, injuries, memory loss, job loss, increased risk for stroke, increased exposure to a carcinogenic substance, increased social problems, all of these and more are potential risks when a loved one is using marijuana.

Don't let your loved one's marijuana crisis unfold into a severe and debilitating affliction for them. Please make sure they get help as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.