Sorry Sessions, teen pot use actually dropped after Colorado legalization

The attorney general's would-be crusade hits another stumbling block.

A marijuana enthusiast rolls a joint to light up at 4:20 p.m. MDT to mark the 4/20 holiday on Thursday, April 20, 2017, in Denver's Civic Center Park. (CREDIT: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A marijuana enthusiast rolls a joint to light up at 4:20 p.m. MDT to mark the 4/20 holiday on Thursday, April 20, 2017, in Denver's Civic Center Park. (CREDIT: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Far fewer teenagers are using cannabis in Colorado since the state’s tightly regulated legal market for recreational pot got off the ground at the start of 2014, new data shows.

Somebody should tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions. While the ardent drug warrior has thus far surprised critics and disappointed fans by failing to launch the kind of broad crackdown on legalized cannabis that most observers anticipated he would pursue, he has continued to hint that winter is coming for the pot industry. The question of youth pot consumption is almost always on his lips when he discusses the drug.

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Supporters of legalization have always argued that taxed, regulated, and legally traded cannabis is much easier to keep away from kids. A black market product fosters abuse and makes little meaningful delineation between young buyers and adult ones. While legalization skeptics understandably fret about child safety when the subject is debated, the data from Colorado bears out the long-theoretical logic that says kids will have a much harder time getting weed if it is treated like beer, cigarettes, and other legal intoxicants.

The latest edition of the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health supports the legalizer’s forecast. About 9 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 in Colorado reported using marijuana in the last month, down from about 11 percent in the previous year’s survey and from about 12.5 percent the year before that.

“Opponents of marijuana legalization dating back for the last eighty years have been prone to picking and choosing statistics to make their case,” Brian Vicente, a co-author of the ballot measure that legalized pot in Colorado, told Westword. “I’m very curious to see what they’ll say about this particular issue, because this is the most legitimate study in the country on teen use. Opponents have been citing it as something that’s negative for years. So even though there’s been a tendency by prohibitionists to switch tactics when actual statistics don’t favor them, this is pretty tough for them to stare down.”

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Hostile though he is to pro-pot arguments in general, this one is practically tailored to Sessions’ longstanding convictions. No one is arguing that teens just magically stopped smoking weed after legalization. Colorado’s legalization law contains stern provisions targeting underage use. Law enforcement resources previously diffused across an entire population of cannabis users can now concentrate on those who would sell to children. Regulation brings the seed-to-sale production and retail process under tight supervision, facilitating law enforcement efforts to uphold those age-related provisions. Sessions has rejected the scientific and socioeconomic arguments for legalization in the past, but this one relies on the simple kinetic logic of the law enforcement profession.

Yet even here, the nation’s top cop has shown himself impervious to information that contradicts his priors. In an ominous letter to Colorado leaders this summer, Sessions specifically flagged a jump in youth marijuana use as a reason he might still seek to impose federal prohibition in the state. His letter cited a 2016 report from law enforcement agencies in the area, which in turn reported a 20 percent increase in youth pot use rates. But that figure came from the 2013-14 edition of the same report that now shows stark declines in youth cannabis consumption in the state. And the state’s legal recreational cannabis sales program only debuted at the beginning of 2014, in the middle of the survey period Sessions cherrypicked.

The same survey from the following year — already available by the time Sessions drafted his letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in the summer of 2017 — showed youth use rates dipping in 2014-15. They are now down to the lowest level recorded in the survey since the 2007-08 research window, dropping off by about 3.5 percentage points — or more than 25 percent, to use the same statistical trick Sessions employed in his letter — from the 2013-14 peak.

Young Coloradans are also using other intoxicants at lower and lower rates since legalization. Heroin use is down slightly in the new survey data for most age groups, including teens. Alcohol use is down significantly among 18- to 25-year-olds, a datapoint consistent with the public health argument that a significant share of people will substitute relatively low-harm cannabis for relatively high-harm alcohol if it feels safe to do so.