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Study Finds No Increase In Youth Marijuana Use In States With Decriminalization

David Kovaluk/St. Louis Public Radio

Decriminalizing marijuana doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in adolescent use, according to research from Washington University.

Marijuana possession is still illegal under decriminalization, but it is treated as a civil offense.

Rather than arresting a person for possessing small amounts of marijuana, an officer issues a citation similar to a traffic ticket. A Wash U analysis of U.S. states that decriminalized the drug found a steep drop in the number of marijuana-related arrests and no increase in reported adolescent drug use.

Nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana in recent years, sparking concern that more lenient policies could lead to an increase in youth drug use.

“As researchers, our job is to address these concerns with data, whether the concerns are well thought out or just gut feelings,” said Rick Grucza, Wash U professor of psychiatry and study author.

Grucza and his colleagues examined marijuana use and related arrests in five states that decriminalized marijuana between 2008 and 2014: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maryland.

Based on anonymous surveys of eighth- through 12th-graders, 23 percent of students surveyed in decriminalized states had used marijuana within the past month, compared to 20 percent in states with criminal penalties for possession. The difference was not statistically significant.

Furthermore, the arrest rate for marijuana possession across the decriminalized states dropped by 75 percent for adolescents and 78 percent for adults.

“The policies that the states adopted were very homogeneous, so we got a chance to look at the same kind of natural experiment five times over,” Grucza said. “In each of those five cases, we saw that the policy did what it was intended to do, which was reduce involvement of marijuana users with the criminal justice system."

The city of St. Louis decriminalized marijuana in 2013, stating individuals “should not incur unreasonably harsh consequences as a result of possession of minor amounts.” According to the ordinance, individuals in possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana can be fined $100 to $500, but should not be arrested, taken into custody or required to post bond.

The city ordinance includes a number of exceptions, including those who have pleaded guilty to or been found guilty of a felony in the past 10 years and anyone possessing marijuana packaged in a manner intended for sale or distribution.

Missouri decriminalized marijuana in 2014, but the law did not take effect until January 2017. Under state law, first-time offenders caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana face fines but no jail time. 

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