As Congress debates following states in legalizing marijuana, youth use is up

Published 8:29 am Monday, October 25, 2021

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By Michael Touma

Capital News Service

As congressional Democrats press for federal legalization of marijuana and more states continue to legalize it, an increasing number of college-age adults across the United States are ditching liquor stores and heading to dispensaries, a new study shows. 

Roughly 44% of college students consumed marijuana in 2020, a jump from 38% in 2015, according to a July survey by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.

The survey, which has been tracking alcohol and drug consumption of Americans aged 19-60 since 1980, questioned nearly 1,600 young adults aged 19-22 from March to November 2020. This age range showed the greatest changes in cannabis and alcohol use of all the groups studied.

By contrast, among 45-60 year olds, 10-12% reported marijuana use in 2020, a decrease from 12-15% in 2015. 

“There may be multiple reasons for these findings, including increased social acceptance of marijuana use and decreased criminal justice-related treatment admissions,” Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, told Capital News Service. “Additional research is required to build an evidence base and untangle the multiple factors that affect cannabis use outcomes.” 

The increase in marijuana use among young Americans coincided with a decrease in alcohol consumption. Fifty-six percent of the study’s subjects reported drinking alcohol in 2020, compared to 62% the year before. 

Likewise, binge-drinking hit an all-time low in the most recent study, dipping eight points in a year to 24%. 

“While binge-drinking has been gradually declining among college students for the past few decades, this is a new historic low,” Dr. John Schulenberg, a University of Michigan psychology professor and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

The trend toward higher marijuana consumption comes at a time when the legalization of the drug is accelerating among the states: voters in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey approved marijuana legalization measures in the 2020 elections. 

In total, 33 states – including Maryland – plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. A total of 19 states and the District of Columbia also have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

On the federal level, three Democratic senators want to legalize cannabis nationwide. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Cory Booker of New Jersey co-sponsored a bill they introduced in July to do just that. 

“Cannabis prohibition, a key pillar of the failed War on Drugs, has caused substantial harm to our communities and small businesses, and especially for communities of color,” Wyden said in a statement. “It’s as simple as this: Senators Booker, Schumer and I want to bring common sense to the federal government, end prohibition and restore the lives of those hurt most and set them up for opportunity.” 

The lawmakers’ bill, called the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and would give states the right to regulate the drug as they now regulate alcohol.

“Not only will this legislation remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances,” Schumer said in a statement. “But it will also help fix our criminal justice system, ensure restorative justice, protect public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations.”

The House in December passed legislation decriminalizing marijuana, but the measure died in the Senate. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-New York, and five other House Democrats reintroduced the bill in May. Nadler is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Pointing to state legalization efforts, Nadler said: “Our federal laws must keep up with this pace.” 

But opponents insist cannabis use shouldn’t be encouraged by the government.

“Drug use is an epidemic in this country,” Scott Chipman, vice president of Americans Against Legalizing Marijuana, told CNS. “We need to ask why and address the underlying causes. Certainly, normalizing drug use and commercializing marijuana exacerbates the drug use epidemic.” 

The University of Michigan survey found that cannabis use was highest in states in the West and Northeast. Fourteen of the 20 states in those two regions have legalized the drug for recreational use. 

“Often, as humans, we want to do things that we perceive to be normative – to have our actions perceived as positive and normal within our social groups and society,” Volkow said. “So, as drugs like marijuana… are advertised to have potential therapeutic effects and are perceived as socially acceptable, that may lead people to be more likely to want to take them.”

The nation’s attitude towards marijuana has become more favorable in recent years.

A November 2020 Gallup poll showed that 68% of Americans support marijuana legalization, including almost half of Republicans.

“For decades, our federal government has waged a War on Drugs that has unfairly impacted low-income communities and communities of color,” Booker said in a statement. “While red and blue states across the country continue to legalize marijuana, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind. It is time for Congress to end the federal marijuana prohibition and reinvest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.”