Don’t Listen To The Alarmists – Legalisation Doesn’t Lead To More Young People Using Drugs

by Jason Reed

Much to the chagrin of ‘project fear’ prohibitionists, yet another study has found that legalising cannabis has no effect whatsoever on the number of young people who use it.

Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study looked at state-level cannabis prohibition laws between 1999 and 2017, and found no association between cannabis legalisation and increases in levels of usage amongst young people.

“Results suggest minimal short-term effects of recreational marijuana use laws on adolescent substance abuse,” the researchers write in their conclusion. “Controlling for other factors, models found that legalisation was not associated with a significant shift in the likelihood of cannabis use but predicted a small significant decline in the level of marijuana use among users.”

The US is awash with similar studies of cannabis being legalised and recreational usage remaining constant or, in some cases, actually going down, especially among young people. Another study published late last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found there was no increase at all in cannabis use among the general population, or among previous users, after cannabis was legalised in their state.

Conducted between 2008 and 2017, the study included data from surveys of around 830,000 Americans over the age of 12, both before and after recreational cannabis was legalised. Importantly, the research also found that there were no changes in cannabis use or cannabis use disorder for people aged between 12 and 20 in the states which had legalised marijuana.

Since Colorado and Washington state first legalised recreational marijuana in 2012, there have been countless studies published by researchers across the US showing that the oft-cited fears of prohibitionists that legalisation will lead to an explosion in drug use have no basis in reality.

As a result, there are now 18 states in the US which have legalised recreational marijuana use for adults over the age of 21, not including the District of Columbia. Last year alone, four states – New York, New Mexico, Virginia and Connecticut – added their names to the list. In total, there are 37 states (plus DC) in which the medical use of cannabis is legal.

Across the pond, the states are falling like dominoes. Meanwhile, Britain remains behind the times. While our American cousins are beginning to move past flawed, unscientific prohibitionist narratives about the dangers of legalisation, we remain stuck in our twentieth-century mentality when it comes to drug policy. So much so that very few politicians of any party are willing to put their heads above their parapet, and voice their support for a common-sense approach to drug policy.

The wealth of evidence showing that there is no link between usage and legalisation highlights the fact that the alarmists and the prohibitionists are wholly missing the point. This was never about the number of people using drugs. We cannot stop people using drugs, nor is that something we should try to do. Instead, this is about public health.

There is no way around it. The only way to address public health issues around drug use is to allow for a legal, regulated market where the stench of stigma is removed, and the industry is open and transparent. Being able to buy cannabis in a high street shop from a reputable vendor with a significant brand presence, rather than from a man on a street corner, is always going to result in improved safety and health outcomes.

Prohibition brushes the drug policy issue under the carpet. It is the easy way out. It means those who are uncomfortable even acknowledging the presence of drugs in society can avoid having difficult conversations about it by pretending the issue doesn’t exist. It has become the status quo, but this wilful ignorance has clearly evidenced detrimental consequences.

Prohibitionism isn’t simply harmful to those who use drugs – it is dangerous to wider society too. Drugs are a booming market, but because of our Draconian drug laws, it remains in the shadows, meaning all its profits neatly sidestep the Treasury and are funnelled directly into the pockets of organised crime. 

By bringing the cannabis market out into the open, we could tax sales, and take the legs out from under countless criminal gangs who rely on the drug trade to fuel their violence – all without having any impact whatsoever on the number of people who use drugs.

Enough with the alarmism. Legalisation won’t bring about the surge in cannabis use which apocalyptic prohibitionists are so desperate for us to believe is just around the corner. It is high time to dispense with our wildly outdated prohibition laws, and pursue a more evidence-based drug policy.

This is one area where post-Brexit Britain could be truly world-leading, setting an example for governments across the globe in bolstering public health, cracking down on criminal gangs, and generating a whole new revenue stream – all through this one neat little policy change. 


Jason Reed is the UK Lead at Young Voices and a political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Tweets @JasonReed624 or read more on his website,


Lead image credit:

You may also like

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept

Privacy & Cookies Policy