Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

CDC survey finds increased marijuana use, but less abuse

Last Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the finding of its survey on marijuana, which covered the time period from 2002 to 2014. DownloadHere is a summary of its findings:

The report includes at least seven important findings. First, in 2014, a total of 2.5 million persons aged ≥ 12 years had used marijuana for the first time during the preceding 12 months, an average of approximately 7,000 new users each day. Second, during 2002-2014, the prevalence of marijuana use during the past month, past year, and daily or almost daily increased among person aged ≥ 18 years, but not among those aged 12-17 years. Third, among person aged ≥ 12 years, the prevalence of perceived great risk from smoking marijuana once or twice a week and once a month decreased and the prevalence of perceived no risk increased. Fourth, the prevalence of past year marijuana dependence and abuse decreased, except persons aged ≥ 26 years. Fifth, among persons aged ≥ 12 years, the percentage reporting that marijuana was fairly easy or very easy to obtain increased. Sixth, the percentage of persons aged ≥ 12 years reporting the mode of acquisition of marijuana was buying it and growing it increased versus getting it for free and sharing it. Finally, the percentage of persons aged ≥ 12 years reporting that the perceived maximum legal penalty for the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in their state is a fine and no penalty increased versus probation, community service, possible prison sentence, and mandatory prison sentence.

As the report itself acknowledges, it is limited to some degree. The results can’t account for self-reporting bias and the natural subjectivity of perceived risk. It also does not take account of the amount of marijuana consumed by survey participants (Sure they smoked weekly, but were they taking bongs rips all day or simply sharing a joint with their spouse before bed?) or the methods used to consume it (e.g., smoked, vaped, eaten, etc.). And, it was conducted at a time of rapid change in marijuana policy reform. Colorado and Washington had just implemented their recreational use laws, while Alaska, Oregon and D.C. had not yet put them into effect. Moreover, since 2014, eight states either decriminalized marijuana or legalized its medical use in some form. Polls now show a majority of Americans support marijuana legalization. So one might expect current marijuana usage rates to have further evolved.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the survey has plenty of intrigue. Notably, the rate of marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds has decreased. That’s an encouraging sign for marijuana reform advocates. Legalization opponents are often concerned that legalization will lead to a proliferation of teenage pot use, which, they fear, will create a generation of nitwits and bums. But preliminary results don’t seem to support that conclusion.

And it’s not just this CDC report. As The Scientific American recently reported:

Marijuana consumption by Colorado high school students has dipped slightly since the state first permitted recreational cannabis use by adults, a new survey showed on Monday, contrary to concerns that legalization would increase pot use by teens.


The biannual poll by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also showed the percentage of high school students indulging in marijuana in Colorado was smaller than the national average among teens.


According to the department, 21.2 percent of Colorado high school students surveyed in 2015 had used marijuana during the preceding 30 days, down from 22 percent in 2011, the year before voters statewide approved recreational cannabis use by adults 21 and older. The first state-licensed retail outlets for legalized pot actually opened in 2014.


Nationwide, the rate of pot use by teens is slightly higher at 21.7 percent, the study found.

Of course, these two surveys aren’t dispositive as to the question of the effect of marijuana legalization on teen usage. But they can’t be completely ignored either. It’s entirely reasonable to suspect that the spotlight on marijuana legalization – medically or for recreational use – over the last 5 to 10 years has served to educate both parents and children on marijuana use and its risks.

Every other age group the CDC surveyed showed an increase in marijuana usage. In 2002, only 1.1 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds reported having used marijuana in the last month, compared to 6.1 percent in 2014. That’s a 455 percent increase. Marijuana usage by people 65 years old and older increased by a comparatively humble 333 percent over that same period of time.

From a public health perspective, the results seem mostly positive. More Americans are using marijuana; but the rate of marijuana abuse and dependency has declined across the board, and teen usage is down. It would be extraordinary for binge drinking to have such low rates.

The CDC report was generated from responses to its National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The full report can be found here.

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