Colorado Kids Aren't Using More Marijuana, But They're Bearing the Brunt of Enforcement

Last week was exciting for folks (nerds?) like me who are interested in the public health implications of marijuana policy reform, especially those of us in Colorado.

With the long-awaited release of the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, we got an updated snapshot of how youth in the state are responding to implementation of Amendment 64. This ballot initiative victory legalized recreational use of marijuana for adults in 2012, allowing those 21 or older to purchase it when it became available in retail stores starting in January of 2014.

Opponents of this groundbreaking reform continued to harbor concerns over the past few years that it would lead to a drastic spike in marijuana use among young people. Using data from the 2013 version of the Healthy Kids survey as a baseline, however, we can see that such fears remain unfounded and unrealized.

Responses from 17,000 middle and high school students throughout the state indicate that, in keeping with national trends, the percentage of Colorado youth who report ever trying marijuana or using it within the past month has remained relatively steady. While a smaller percentage of kids now believe that people risk harming themselves (physically and in other ways) if they use marijuana regularly, perceptions of harms associated with more dangerous substances such as alcohol and cigarettes persist.

Almost all respondents expressed objection to the unauthorized use of prescription drugs, a heartening sign. They apparently don’t find marijuana any easier to access than in the past. And moreover, a majority of young Coloradans surveyed have never tried marijuana and asserted that it is wrong for someone their age to use it.

Yet while the Healthy Kids data gives us reassuring insights, there is a lot more work to be done. Punitive drug policies continue to negatively impact young people in Colorado and beyond. According to the Colorado Department of Education, there were more than 400 expulsions and over 4,500 suspensions related to drug violations in the 2014-2015 school year despite efforts to curtail "zero tolerance" policies recognized by the legislature in 2012 as precipitating unnecessarily harsh enforcement.

Since marijuana is the most commonly used substance among young people besides alcohol (which is categorized separately in school discipline data), it is not a stretch to assume that it is being used as a driving force for curtailing educational opportunities precisely when they are needed most.

And pushing kids out of schools, even if only temporarily, is just the tip of the iceberg—drug violations represent 30% of the school-based incidents that get referred to law enforcement. Juvenile marijuana arrests have increased and at a notably disparate rate among young people of color. Despite similar rates of marijuana use, related arrests among White Colorado youth decreased by 8% from 2012-2014 at the same time as they increased by almost 60% among young African Americans. While racist enforcement of marijuana policy is hardly new, this recent data is a pressing call to action.  Our young people deserve better.

For those of us committed to evidence-based prevention and to constructively addressing potential harms that can legitimately be associated with substance use, the latest Healthy Kids data creates a pivotal moment. Put in broader context, these results are important for Coloradans but they can also inform national efforts at meaningful and lasting change.

Instead of continuing to harp on imagined consequences of marijuana policy reform, we can turn our resources toward the realities of empowering young people while also resisting stigma and confronting racism, promoting vital harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment access, and continuing to insist that punishing people for possessing or using drugs, regardless of age, does a disservice to current and future generations.

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