Kids Trade Marijuana for Alcohol at 21

Would legalizing and regulating cannabis reduce teen usage?
Would legalizing and regulating cannabis reduce teen usage?

The law of unintended consequences strikes again. A few months back, we named the “Top Ten Dubious Claims About Marijuana.” At the top of that list was the assertion that “legalization will lead to more marijuana in the hands of children and unfettered access for all.” One of our principal reasons for calling out this misconception is that a more strictly regulated market would make it more difficult for the underaged to access marijuana, as with alcohol.

A study (abstract available here) recently published in the Journal of Health Economics seemingly bears this out. The study’s authors reviewed data on adolescent and young adult drug and alcohol use from ten states between 2004 and 2012. That analysis demonstrated that, upon turning 21, many kids’ marijuana use decreased as their alcohol consumption increased. The effect was more pronounced in women, as they decreased their consumption by twice as much as men.

Reading between the lines, this study seems to indicate that because pot is easy to obtain and alcohol is more difficult, at least some kids are deterred from drinking before their 21st birthday, substituting pot as their indulgence of choice instead. Therefore, a lower drinking age might stem marijuana use among those in their late teens; one of the study’s authors suggested a decrease even by as much as 10%.

Of course it doesn’t seem very logical to swap marijuana consumption for alcohol consumption. But this study does throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the thinking that marijuana is a gateway drug and provides some evidence that at least for some users, legalized marijuana may replace alcohol. It also perfectly illustrates the need for more of these kinds of studies and data mining to inform better, more evidence-based policymaking, lest we continue to repeat and indulge dubious claims and fallacious arguments about cannabis.