What effect would marijuana legalization in Virginia have on youth use?

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Some local opponents of marijuana decriminalization and legalization say it increases underage use, but new studies indicate otherwise.

Since 2012, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 11 states and the district have legalized recreational use. Other states, including Virginia this year, have decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot and are considering legalization.

At the federal level, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted earlier this month to decriminalize marijuana possession, manufacturing and distribution. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to block the bill from becoming law, though.


The years that have passed since marijuana reform began have allowed for studies about the effect on youth marijuana use. In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an analysis of the Youth Risk Behavior Study. The nationwide study, which also asked questions about alcohol, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and prescription pill use, was conducted from 2009 through 2019 and involved thousands of ninth-12th graders.

The CDC noted that youth alcohol and drug use, including marijuana, do increase the likelihood of academic underachievement, delinquency, mental health disorders and teen pregnancy.

But the survey said that about 78% of students said they hadn’t used marijuana in the past 30 days. The CDC concluded the survey results are “encouraging findings that include decreasing prevalence of current alcohol use and decreases in the [likelihood] of lifetime marijuana use.” It also said overall “youth substance abuse has declined in recent years.”

An analysis of the survey published last month by the Journal of Adolescent Health found recreational marijuana legalization “was not associated with a significant shift in the likelihood of marijuana use” and predicted a “significant decline in the level of marijuana use among users.”

However, the analysis did caution that given the expected increase in marijuana reform, ongoing assessment of the effect on youths is “essential.”

Results of the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration were also encouraging. The survey found youth marijuana use dropped despite increasing in young adults between 18-25.

The percentage of people 18-25 who said they used marijuana in the past year increased from nearly 30%, or 9.2 million in 2002, to 35.4%, or 12 million, in 2019. But the percentage of youths between 12-17 who said they’d used marijuana in the past year decreased from 15.8%, or 3.9 million, in 2002, to 13.2%, or 3.3 million, in 2019.

The decrease came despite overall U.S. population increases. The population grew from 287 million in 2002 to 328 million last year, a 14% hike. The study also found the number of youths who said they began using marijuana last year were similar to the annual amounts in 2002 through 2018.

Despite current studies, Dave Stegmaier insists legalizing marijuana will increase youth drug use. Stegmaier, elected last month to the Frederick County Board of Supervisors and a member of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition prevention committee, also asserts marijuana causes schizophrenia and violence. In an email, Stegmaier warned that legalization in Virginia will lead to “potent and dangerous” marijuana being made available to Virginians of all ages despite legalization only involving adults.

“How can we be doing this to our young, crippling the next generation of Virginians?” he asked. “The leaders of countries that are our adversaries, such as China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba, are laughing at us as we destroy ourselves from within.”

In the email, Stegmaier cites “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence,” by Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter. The book has been widely debunked. In an open letter by 50 academics, doctors, mental health professionals and scientists from colleges and organizations in Amsterdam, Canada and the U.S., the writers accuse Berenson of cherry-picking statistics and selection bias. The writers, who come from colleges and organizations including Columbia University, Harvard Medical School and the Substance Use Disorders Institute, also accuse him of racism. They cite a passage of Berenson’s book where he says police disproportionately arrest Black people for marijuana crimes not because of targeted enforcement, but because Black people are more mentally ill and violent due to smoking marijuana.

The letter writers note there are multiple factors for mental illness including genetics. And they point out the vast majority of people who use marijuana are non-violent.

“When research is misrepresented to uphold and perpetuate the worst myths about people of color and people with mental illness, we are required to speak up,” the letter said. “We urge policymakers and the public to rely on scientific evidence, not flawed pop science and ideological polemics, in formulating their opinions about marijuana legislation.”

Stegmaier said his opposition is partially based on his 62-year-old sister being diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he blames on marijuana use. He cited a report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine about a purported link between marijuana and mental illness.

A summary of the report did say heavy marijuana users were more likely to have suicidal thoughts than non-users and regular users with a bipolar disorder had more disorder symptoms than non-users. Nevertheless, as German Lopez, a writer for the online magazine Vox noted in a review of Berenson’s book, the National Academies said that there is no conclusive evidence of a link.

The report said mentally ill people may use marijuana to self-medicate rather than becoming mentally ill due to pot. “In certain societies, the incidence of schizophrenia has remained stable over the past 50 years despite the introduction of cannibas into those settings,” the report said.

While some people connected to the coalition support marijuana reform, Stegmaier is among the members who oppose it. Last year, the coalition co-sponsored a speech by two critics of Colorado’s marijuana legalization at a convention in Winchester. And in 2018, Lauren Cummings, coalition executive director, expressed concern that legalization could lead to more youth use.

However, in a recent email, Cummings said the coalition is neutral on decriminalization and legalization. “We remain focused on helping individuals who are suffering with the disease of addiction — regardless of the specific substance — including alcohol and tobacco,” she said.

A Nov. 30 report to Gov. Ralph Northam and General Assembly on legalization in Virginia emphasized the need to prevent it from increasing addiction. It said legalization would likely increase the perception of youths that marijuana is harmless and said public education about potential dangers to brain development should build on existing education campaigns.

Among the recommendations are that marijuana dispensaries shouldn’t be located near schools and dispensaries should have mandatory ID checks to avoid underage purchasing. Advertisements shouldn’t target youths or be located near schools.

Jon Gettman, a Shenandoah University associate professor of criminal justice and president of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws from 1986-89, said legalization will reduce black market sales of marijuana making it harder for underage people to obtain it. He said the increase in the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1986 should be a model.

“Policy makers knew that this would not end drinking by college students, but that instead, it would reduce the amount of alcohol that would be available to those under the age of 18,” Gettman said in an email. “The same dynamic applies to the marijuana market. With legal marijuana restricted to those 21 and over, less will trickle down to those under the legal age.”

Judy McKiernan, Winchester Public Schools director of student services, acknowledges that legalization might shrink the marijuana black market, but if there is money to be made some underage people will get it. Since becoming director in 2018, McKiernan oversees school social workers and helps coordinate student counseling and health services. But between being hired in 1990 through 2005, she was the school division’s substance use prevention coordinator and frequently interacted with students who were using marijuana.

McKiernan said she doesn’t have data on whether local marijuana use is down, up or level in recent years, but those who do use it have often been vaping extracted THC through a cartridge in the last few years. That’s part of a national trend.

A youth survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and released recently on the National Institute for Drug Abuse’s website found past-year vaping of marijuana remained steady this year, with 8.1% of eighth graders, 19.1% of 10th graders, and 22.1% of 12th graders reporting past-year use. That followed a two-fold increase over the past two years. Additionally, daily marijuana vaping significantly decreased by more than half from 2019, to 1.1% among 10th graders and 1.5% among 12th graders in this year.

McKiernan said with few students in school due to the pandemic it’s too early to tell what effect decriminalization has had on local underage use.

With brains not fully developed until people are 25, McKiernan said the division is committed to trying to keep young people from using marijuana frequent use can adversely affect developing brains.

“What goes on for our adult population and legalization is for other entities to work through,” she said. “Our concern is for the developing mind, because that’s who we serve.”

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