Millennials' Marijuana Usage Has Risen but Pales to Baby Boomers' Hazy Days

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Marijuana buds
Star Foreman

The baby boomers still outcompete every generation in getting high, but could it be that college kids today are catching up? Only slightly.

The popular saying, "If you remember the '60s, you weren't there," still rings true, according to the most recent iteration of the 40-year-long "Monitoring the Future" study from the University of Michigan. The study found that about 85 percent of 50-somethings have used illegal drugs, including marijuana, in their lifetimes. Not including weed, a whopping 70 percent of them were using other kinds of drugs. Compared to high school and college students today, late millennials look like a generation of squares. Since 1980, the amount of college kids who reported having used marijuana in the past year declined from 51.2 percent to 37.9 percent in 2015.

But in the past decade, college kids' marijuana use has steadily increased from 30 percent in 2006. Despite medical and recreational marijuana legalization sweeping the country, researchers can't draw a direct line to state laws, said lead investigator Lloyd Johnston. "What we do know [is that] among young people, there's quite a dramatic drop in the proportion of them who see heavy marijuana use as dangerous," he said. "That, in turn, has changed usage." According to a recent study in The Lancet Psychiatry, the perceived risk of smoking weed has decreased from 50.4 percent to 33.3 percent among adults.

This may not be great news for the immature brain, according to Johnston. "The brain doesn't fully develop until age 25," he said. "Kids who are teens and college-age may be influencing their brain in ways they don't wish to if they knew about it."

Still, smoking weed is far less dangerous than other drugs. The most important finding, Johnston said, is the decrease in opioid use among kids. The use of prescription drugs like vicodin or oxycontin has declined from 8.7 percent in 2003 to 3.3 percent in 2015.

"One of the things that's surprising is how much the use of narcotic drugs has gone down at the same time that national statistics are showing increasing rates of overdoses and overdose deaths," Johnston said. "You'd think from that, all different groups in the population would be using narcotics more." However, states like California with medical marijuana laws see fewer opioid overdose deaths than states that have yet to go green.

The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study
The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study

In California specifically, kids 18 through 25 are using marijuana slightly more than previously, but there are also lower rates of medical pain reliever use and alcohol binging, said Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. Marijuana hasn't proven to be a gateway drug in states like California with lax marijuana laws.

"We're seeing these other behaviors decrease," said Reiman. "It goes back to the question of, what is the goal of marijuana legalization? Some people think the goal is to reduce marijuana use. They'd see this and think we're failing. But others of us from the harm-reduction perspective know that marijuana is safer than alcohol and painkillers. Declines in these other behaviors more likely to be associated with fatal overdoses and assault should be deemed a success."

Moreover, Reiman adds, as more baby boomers are using marijuana again, younger generations may reject the method of intoxication their parents use. So as marijuana becomes normalized with more middle-aged parents embracing it, there may be a dropoff in adolescent use. "It's the forbidden fruit effect — it's not as cool when your dad is doing it," Reiman said.

California's lax legislation has indeed fostered positive effects for young people, studies show. After the state decriminalized marijuana in 2011, possession of less than an ounce of weed fell from a misdemeanor to an infraction, worthy of a maximum $100 fine. Arrests for teens and adults dropped by 85 percent, while teenage risk areas saw overall improvement. "By a variety of measures, California's teenage behaviors actually improved dramatically after marijuana was effectively legalized," wrote researchers, who published their study results with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

These improvements, however, occurred "more weakly or not at all" among teenagers nationwide or among older Californians. Teen marijuana DWI arrests saw a 3 percent decrease, while drug arrests decreased by 23 percent. Meanwhile, school dropout rates declined from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 11.4 percent in 2012.

The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study
The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study

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Today California ranks 12th among states smoking the most weed. Nearly 15 percent of state residents age 12 and older reported having used marijuana in the past year, while the state itself has 4,633,000 total users.

Despite this decade's upward blip in the line graph, overall marijuana use among younger generations, especially minors, has declined. "Kids are more likely to say it's harder to obtain marijuana than they did in the past," said Paul Armento, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "I think that one can make the argument that better regulation of cannabis can be associated with decreased use."

And with more open, normalized conversation about weed, kids may be getting smarter about their drug habits. "Young people are becoming more and more aware of the risks associated with certain substances. They're making more educated decisions with regard to their own use, and there's a growing recognition that opioids are potentially habit-forming," Armentano said.

At the same time, people are learning the truth about marijuana, its safety and its harms, as compared with risky narcotics. And still the number of adolescents 12 through 14 who reportedly disapprove of marijuana has risen from 74.4 percent in 2002 to 78.9 percent in 2013. "That's why overall we're seeing more and more young people turning away from using many of these substances," Armentano said, "or in some cases engaging in more responsible practices if they do use them."

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