Key Anti-Pot Argument Torched? Teen Use Flat as Risk Perception Plunges

By Steven Nelson Dec 16, 2015

A national survey again shows teen pot use isn’t increasing as pockets of legalization take hold.

As jurisdictions across the country legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use, or take more limited steps to cast off, reduce or debate lowering criminal penalties, a key plank of opponents’ case against reform has been the possibility of increased teen use of the drug.


If teens consider marijuana less harmful, they’re more likely to use it, the theory goes. And for decades data appeared to support that argument.


A visually compelling slideshow from leading legalization opponent Kevin Sabet shows data from Monitoring the Future survey results between 1975 to 2009, showing what appears a remarkable relationship between the data among the nation’s high school seniors.


The historical survey results show past-year pot use plunged from about 50 percent in the late 1970s as perception of risk spiked during the “just say no” years of fried-egg ads. ​Beginning the year Bill Clinton was elected, the pattern reversed itself.

This chart, part of a slideshow from anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, shows the strong historical link between teen pot use and risk perception.

Then for about a decade, the association between the two data points became less convincing as changes in use mellowed out.

Last year, however, the Monitoring the Future survey results showed marijuana use stable or slightly down among eighth-, ninth- and 12th-grade students as risk perception also dropped. That prompted the deputy director of the National Institution on Drug Abuse, Dr. Wilson Compton, to tell U.S. News it may be time to reconsider the connection.

“That’s what’s been surprising to me and other researchers: We’ve now had five years of consistent declines in perceived harmfulness and the use rates have been reasonably steady – or dropping slightly this year,” Compton said. “This is a bit of a puzzle and speaks to a different relationship of these phenomena than we’ve seen in the past.”

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