Survey of Colorado teens stirs Massachusetts marijuana legalization debate

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STATE HOUSE — A new survey of teen drug use in Colorado has served to help marijuana legalization advocates in Massachusetts push back against the claims of opponents that legalization will lead to higher rates of teenage pot consumption.

The survey released Monday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that 21.2 percent of high school students in that state reported using marijuana within the past 30 days in 2015. The rate, essentially flat, fell a few ticks from the 22 percent who reported using pot in 2011, the year before the drug became legal for adults.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is behind the ballot push to legalize the adult use of pot in Massachusetts this fall, pointed to the survey as proof that fears of widespread marijuana use by minors as a result of legalization are unfounded.

“It hasn’t happened in Colorado under full legalization, and it hasn’t happened in Massachusetts under decriminalization or legalized medical marijuana,” said the campaign’s spokesman Jim Borghesani.

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Opponents, however, found numbers within the same study, and other research, to support their concerns that legalization will lead to higher usage among minors.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey also found that lifetime use of marijuana among high school students has fallen from 42.6 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2015. Both the recent and lifetime rates of marijuana use in Colorado are lower than the national averages, according to the 2015 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey released this month by the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC found that nationally 21.7 percent of high school students had used pot within the 30 days prior to taking the survey, while 38.6 percent reported using the drug in their lifetime.

Opponents have pointed to the potential for abuse by teenagers as one of their main arguments against legalization in Massachusetts, and did not shy away from that contention in the face of the new survey.

According to Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, the state’s largest school district in Jefferson County and the El Paso Country School District, home to Colorado Springs, did not participate in the health department survey.

Furthermore, the first retail marijuana stores did not open in Colorado until 2014 from which point teen use, according to the same survey, has climbed modestly from 19.7 percent in 2013 to 21.2 percent in 2015.

The increase in use was more pronounced among juniors and seniors in high school, according to the anti-marijuana legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who said prior-month pot use rose from 22.1 to 26.3 percent among juniors between 2013 and 2015, and from 24.3 percent to 27.8 percent among seniors over the same span.

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“We have seen through multiple surveys that teen use in Colorado is trending in the wrong direction since legalization in 2014,” Safe and Healthy Massachusetts campaign manager Nick Bayer said in a statement to the News Service. “Colorado has brought in an entirely new marijuana edible market that is a danger to kids and has become the number one state in the country in youth marijuana use since legalization, according to a national survey. These facts should give everyone concerned about the health and safety of our kids a reason to pause before we rush ahead with commercial legalization.”

The anti-legalization group cited a separate national survey done by the federal government – the National Survey on Drug Use and Health – that found the rate of marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds in Colorado to be the highest in the country – 12.6 percent – in 2013 and 2014. The increase in use of 12 percent over the previous two-year period fell well above the national 7.2 percent average, but was consistent with a relatively higher rate of pot usage among teenagers in Colorado compared with other states before and after legalization.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service