Out of all the states in the U.S., tiny Vermont has one of the highest rates of teen marijuana use. Proponents of legalization say that shows how poorly prohibition of marijuana has worked. As in so many other areas, that view looks at a single moment’s worth of data, ignoring the complex history of marijuana use in Vermont.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which measures how many middle- and high-school students are doing risky things like using marijuana, has been given in Vermont’s schools for many years. When we look back along the timeline of marijuana use, we see that usage rates among teens have gone up and down more than once. In 1993, 19% of high school students reported using marijuana at least once in the 30 days before they took the survey. The usage rate went up to 35% in 1997. Then it leveled off, and began to drop, slowly at first (a single percentage point in 1999) but then faster, until it reached 25% in 2005.
Why the drop? Because prevention efforts on the national, state, and local level were working. Smoking rates dropped, drinking rates dropped, and marijuana rates dropped too, as both adults and teens got the message about using mind-altering drugs moderately or not at all. The decline was slow but steady across the board. Until 2005.
That year, while smoking and drinking rates continued to fall, marijuana use rates leveled off at 25%. And since then, they have been down to 24%, back up to 25%, and back down to 24% in 2013, the last time the survey was administered. In other words, there hasn’t been any significant change for eight years.
Why is that? Because pro-legalization advocates turned marijuana into medicine. It does, indeed, ease some symptoms in a few diseases, and the pro-pot lobby held this up as firm evidence that it was a cure-all. The message teens in Vermont got was that marijuana was perfectly safe for anyone to use. That it wasn’t addictive. That it made you a better driver. None of which is true, but those voices were drowned out.
We have years of data showing that, when teens think an illegal substance isn’t harmful, more of them will start using it. That’s what has happened in Vermont. Our teen use rate is high when it would be lower and still going down, if the pro-pot lobby hadn’t put a halo over marijuana.
And one other point: Prohibition will always be a fact for teenagers. Their developing brains are primed to change, so drugs like marijuana hit them much harder than they hit adults. No law that allows people under 21 to use marijuana will ever pass in the Vermont legislature. The pro-legalization folks should keep both these points in mind when they try to white-wash marijuana. A good-sized share of our high use rate lies on their shoulders.