A top federal drug official reiterated on Wednesday that adolescent marijuana use has not increased in states that have moved to legalize cannabis, much to the surprise of a GOP senator who said he expected otherwise based on alcohol-related trends.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow addressed the issue at a hearing before the Senate Health, Education Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee. She did raise some concerns about potential health risks of marijuana use overall, but made clear that the evidence does not support a common prohibitionist argument that reforming cannabis laws leads to increased underage consumption.

“Specifically in the United States, legalization by some states of marijuana has not been associated with an increase in adolescents’ marijuana use,” Volkow said in response to a question from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

The senator, whose home state of Louisiana last year decriminalized cannabis possession but has not legalized commercial sales of non-medical marijuana, was taken aback.

“That surprises me, because if you relax blue laws for alcohol, there ends up being more alcohol used by adolescents in that given county or parish,” Cassidy replied, referring to policies in place in several states where alcohol purchases are restricted or prohibited on certain days, typically Sundays.

Volkow said that officials are “seeing significant increases in adult use of marijuana and young people, but not in adolescence, which is different exactly from what you’re saying with the alcohol.”

The NIDA director did say that there may be an “association” between marijuana consumption in young people and increased risk of suicidality, but she said that it’s difficult to establish “causality” and the agency is carrying out “prospective studies” that would be necessary to determine that.

She also said earlier in her testimony that “one of the areas that we are most concerned of with the legalization of marijuana” is potential negative mental health consequences of cannabis use. Studies based in the U.S. are not finding that more adolescents are using cannabis post-legalization, she said, but suggested that there may be conflicting research that’s come out of Europe and other parts of the world.

Volkow herself said in several recent interviews that she’s been surprised by the results of federally funded surveys of youth that have not turned up evidence that legalization leads more young people to experiment with cannabis.

But it’s not so surprising to advocates, who have long argued that creating a system of regulated sales for adults would mitigate the illicit market and create restrictions like ID requirements that would mitigate youth access to cannabis.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who served as governor of Colorado in 2012, unsuccessfully tried to convince voters to reject a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, in large part because he worried it would encourage more use by young people. But he recently conceded that, with years of data now generated by his state and other that have since enacted legalization, his concern was unfounded.

As Hickenlooper has said previously, while youth use not increased, more elderly residents have begun patronizing cannabis shops.

The Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR), an alcohol and tobacco industry-backed marijuana policy group, also recently released a report analyzing data on youth marijuana use rates amid the state-level legalization movement.

The report points to studies that plainly contradict claims often made by prohibitionists that creating regulated cannabis markets would lead more underage people to consume marijuana.

One of the most recent federally funded surveys on the topic stressed that youth marijuana use “decreased significantly” in 2021, as did teen consumption of illicit substances overall.

Even at an event hosted by the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), Volkow affirmed that adolescent marijuana use remains “stable” even as more states legalize cannabis.

The 2020 federally funded Monitoring the Future survey further found that cannabis consumption among adolescents “did not significantly change in any of the three grades for lifetime use, past 12-month use, past 30-day use, and daily use from 2019-2020.”

Another federally funded study, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), was released in October showing that youth marijuana use dropped in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic and as more states moved to enact legalization.

Further, an analysis published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in September found that enacting legalization has an overall impact on adolescent cannabis consumption that is “statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics also analyzed youth surveys of high school students from 2009 to 2019 and concluded that there’s been “no measurable difference” in the percentage of those in grades 9-12 who reported consuming cannabis at least once in the past 30 days.

In a separate, earlier analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that marijuana consumption among high school students declined during the peak years of state-legal recreational cannabis legalization.

There was “no change” in the rate of current cannabis use among high school students from 2009-2019, the survey found. When analyzed using a quadratic change model, however, lifetime marijuana consumption decreased during that period.

Another study released by Colorado officials in 2020 showed that youth cannabis consumption in the state “has not significantly changed since legalization” in 2012, though methods of consumption are diversifying.

An official with ONDCP’s National Marijuana Initiative went even further in 2020, admitting that, for reasons that are unclear, youth consumption of cannabis “is going down” in Colorado and other legalized states and that it’s “a good thing” even if “we don’t understand why.”


Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices
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