Washington's Marijuana Legalization: The Kids Are Alright

Legalization did not turn teenagers into marijuana addicts
07/31/2017 08:00 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2017

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the first two states to legalize marijuana – Washington and Colorado – it’s instructive for other states to learn from their example.

In March 2017, Washington’s Office of Financial Management produced a PowerPoint presentation entitled, “Monitoring Impacts of Recreational Marijuana Legalization.”

From that presentation are charts that contradict the predictions of failure from opponents of Initiative 502, the ballot question in 2012 that legalized marijuana in Washington.

In Part I, I broke down the biggest fears offered about the effect of marijuana legalization on children’s use. In this Part II, I’ll give you the a look at how legalization has affected children who do use marijuana. In Part III, I’ll show you what effect marijuana legalization had on traffic safety. Finally, in Part IV, I’ll show you how much marijuana tax revenue the state of Washington has earned.

Legalization Did Increase the Honest Reporting of Marijuana Overdoses

One fear promulgated by opponents of legalization was that children would accidentally ingest confections infused with cannabis and be sickened. Frightening reports of cannabis-infused gummy bears and other candies being introduced into unsuspecting kids’ Halloween treats have been circulating since medical marijuana began in the 1990s.

We do not have the data for poison control calls involving “uh... well... I don’t know... um... maybe he got food poisoning?”
Washington State Office of Financial Management, Forecasting and Research Division, "Monitoring Impacts of Recreational Marijuana Legalization," March 2017
We do not have the data for poison control calls involving “uh... well... I don’t know... um... maybe he got food poisoning?”

This one area where the predictions do seem to have come true. The data show an average 70 percent increase in poison control calls involving marijuana in the three years following legalization than the three years preceding it.

However, an important confounding circumstance should be considered when evaluating this data: prior to 2012, mentioning to the Washington Poison Center that you or your child had accidentally ingested marijuana was tantamount to self-incrimination for the crime of marijuana possession and, in the case of the kids, child endangerment.

We can’t know how many poison calls before 2012 for accidental marijuana ingestion were logged as “food poisoning” or “unknown” as parents lied about the reason for calling.

Legalization Did Not Turn Teenagers Into Marijuana Addicts

Opponents of legalization will often cite the increased potency of marijuana as a reason Baby Boomers should ignore their own fond memories of smoking grass and vote against legalization. Not only is it Not-Your-Father’s-Woodstock-Weed, they warn, but now it is hyper-potent concentrates that will shortly have teens in the grips of addiction.

When police can no longer use the smell of marijuana to harass people, the opportunities decrease for drug courts to sentence
Washington State Office of Financial Management, Forecasting and Research Division, "Monitoring Impacts of Recreational Marijuana Legalization," March 2017
When police can no longer use the smell of marijuana to harass people, the opportunities decrease for drug courts to sentence people to rehab.

This ignores the fact that it isn’t marijuana itself that compels people to seek drug rehab; it is getting caught with illegal marijuana that gets people into drug courts that compel them to seek rehab. Fully half of the people who end up in a rehab solely for marijuana are forced there by the criminal justice system.

Since 2012’s legalization in Washington, there has been a 13 percent decrease in 15-to-19-year-olds in treatment for marijuana. That reversed a trend of an average 4 percent increase since 2006.

However, treatment admissions for other drugs have been on a steady decline of 9 percent since 2009, meaning that marijuana is actually becoming a greater share of all rehab admissions since legalization. Where marijuana used to account for 60 percent of the youth in rehab, it now accounts for 72 percent of all admissions since legalization.

Legalization Is Not Disrupting Teen Education

One fear of the opponents of legalization was that it would infiltrate our schools and lead to disciplinary problems for our youth.

One-out-of-250 Washington students were suspended or expelled for marijuana in 2016. Of all the suspended or expelled student
Washington State Office of Financial Management, Forecasting and Research Division, "Monitoring Impacts of Recreational Marijuana Legalization," March 2017
One-out-of-250 Washington students were suspended or expelled for marijuana in 2016. Of all the suspended or expelled students, marijuana wasn’t involved in 10-out-of-11 cases.

Yet, according to the data from the 2015-2016 school year, just 0.4 percent of all Washington students were suspended or expelled for marijuana. Of all the students who were suspended or expelled, marijuana was only involved in 9 percent of the cases.

That works out to only one-in-250 Washington students who were suspended or expelled for marijuana in the 2015-2016 school year. Even considering just the students who were suspended or expelled for any reason, marijuana was the cause for discipline in just one-in-eleven cases.

Data from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction confirm that legal marijuana for adults is not impacting teen education. The high school graduation rate in 2012-2013 was 78.8 percent. In 2013-2014 the rate inched up to 79.9 percent. For 2014-2015, it had risen again to 81.1 percent of students graduating.

Continue on to Part III where I look at the effect legalized marijuana has had on traffic fatalities and DUIs...

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