Marijuana as a Gateway Drug for Teens? Maybe Not

shutterstock 531899425
shutterstock 531899425

Marijuana use among teens has remained steady even as legal marijuana comes online in more states.

Medical marijuana has been legalized in 28 states, and eight states have legalized recreational use. With legal marijuana’s availability at an all-time high, teen use must be skyrocketing. Not quite.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse funds an annual survey on drug use that is conducted by Monitor The Future.  Teens in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades were questioned about their substance use habits. Alcohol and tobacco were used by teens at the lowest rate since the ’90s. Rates of marijuana use were almost identical for teens when compared to last year.


“I don’t have an explanation,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told U.S. News. “This is somewhat surprising. We had predicted — based on the changes in legalization, culture in the U.S., as well as decreasing perceptions among teenagers that marijuana was harmful — that [accessibility and use] would go up. But it hasn’t gone up.”

According to Vice News, here are some of the important facts highlighted by the study:

  • Marijuana use in the past month among eighth-graders dropped significantly in 2016 to 5.4 percent, from 6.5 percent in 2015.
  • Daily use among eighth-graders dropped in 2016 to 0.7 percent from 1.1 percent in 2015.
  • Among high school seniors, 22.5 percent report marijuana use in the past month and 6 percent report daily use. Both measures remained relatively stable from last year.
  • Rates of marijuana use in the past year among 10th-graders also remained stable compared to 2015 but are at their lowest levels in over two decades.
  • Marijuana and e-cigarettes are now more popular than regular cigarettes among teens.
  • 38.3 percent of high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws reported marijuana use in the past year, compared to 33.3 percent in non-medical marijuana states. Those findings align with previous survey data.

While the steady usage rate of teens may surprise some, many marijuana advocates have predicted this would be the case. With more marijuana behind store counters and not on the black market, access may be an issue for teens.

“We’ve always argued that taking marijuana out of the unregulated criminal market and putting sales into the hands of responsible retailers would actually make it harder for young people to get,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority. “The new data bear this out, and it’s just common sense.”