As more and more countries reform their approach to cannabis, many opponents against reform often cite concerns for young people among their reasons to keep the status quo of prohibition and criminalisation. Opponents argue that reform will inevitably lead to an increase in youth consumption, that it sends a message that cannabis use in youths is acceptable, and legislation often makes it easier for youths to access cannabis. While advocates for reform argue that legalisation will eliminate the dangers and risks of consumption and will combat all the concerns cited by those opposed to reform. So, what’s the truth?
Myth: Legalisation increases youth cannabis consumption.
Youth consumption is a concern for all regardless of your opinion on cannabis reform. Researchers have concluded in a study published last year, that states who have legalised cannabis for recreational or medical use did not have an increase in youth consumption. The well-respected Journal of the American Medical Association published the “Youth Risk Behaviour Study” which captures data from 1993-2019 in 10 states that have legalised cannabis for recreational or medical use.
Researchers looked at the rates of youth cannabis use in these states finding that the policy change had a "statistically indistinguishable from zero" effect on youth consumption. Instead, the research reveals that changes in the legal environment actually cause a decline in youth cannabis consumption. They reached the conclusion that cannabis legalisation was not linked to recent or regular cannabis use, instead in states where legalisation has taken place youth consumption has decreased.
This study is one of many that have been released over the last number of years that confirm a regulatory change to a legal market does not increase youth consumption. In 2021 a US National Institute on Drug Abuse study found a significant decrease in youth consumption rates, in some age categories the decrease was as large as 10%, saying “These findings represent the largest one-year decrease in overall illicit drug use reported since the survey began in 1975”.
This trend is not isolated to the US. Canada legalised recreational cannabis in 2018 with decision-makers emphasising the protection of youth and the need to reduce youth consumption as one of their main goals. A study has shown no significant differences in the trends of cannabis use post-legalisation.
Myth: Legalisation makes it easier for youths to access cannabis.
The legalisation of cannabis has been a contentious topic for years, with one of the main arguments against it being that it will make it easier for youths to access the drug. However, recent studies have shown that the opposite is true. In fact, legalisation can help to protect youths from the harms associated with cannabis use.
One of the biggest dangers for youths who use cannabis are obtaining it from the black market. When cannabis is illegal, it is more easily available to youths who are looking to experiment with the drug. This is because black market dealers do not ask for ID and do not care about the age of their customers. In contrast, when cannabis is legalised and regulated, it is age-gated with a requirement to be over a certain age. This means that licenced premises are not permitted to sell cannabis products to minors. This was one of the main drivers behind Canada’s decision to reform its approach to cannabis. While youths may still find ways to access cannabis, legalisation makes it much more difficult for them to obtain it.
Moreover, prohibition only exacerbates the risks associated with cannabis use for youths. Studies have shown that many youths have been arrested and have criminal records for cannabis-related offences, which not only affects their educational achievement and employment prospects but also increases their likelihood of reoffending. The social consequences of becoming stigmatized criminals can also have detrimental effects on youths' lives.
Legalisation and regulation can change this harmful scenario. It provides an opportunity for cannabis to be strictly regulated and helps protect youths from the harms associated with accessing cannabis through the black market. Legalisation can help ensure that cannabis is produced and distributed safely, with accurate information on the packaging about the product and its effects. Additionally, the regulation provides a chance to develop comprehensive educational programs aimed at young people, about the risks and benefits of cannabis.
Therefore, the legalisation of cannabis is not only practical but also a desirable course of action. It can provide youths with better protection, reduce the risks associated with accessing cannabis, and prevent youths from entering the criminal justice system. It is time for society to move beyond the myths and to recognize that legalisation can benefit young people by promoting the safe use of cannabis through regulation.