Study: Young Adult Attitudes on Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana abuse
Marijuana legalization has led some college-age young adults to believe marijuana is safe to use now that it’s legal in some states.

A new study from Seattle Children’s Research Institute (SCRI) shows that marijuana legalization has led some college-age young adults to believe marijuana must be safe to use now that it’s legal in some states. That’s a dangerous assumption says the study’s lead author, Dr. Megan Moreno, a Principal Investigator who studies social media and adolescent health at the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at SCRI.

“Marijuana interferes with brain development, and that includes young adults in college,” said Moreno. “About 5% of survey participants expressed that government legalization of marijuana must mean it is safe to use. That might seem like a small percentage. But when magnified on a larger population, it could be a substantial number of young adults who have that perception.”

Moreno and team interviewed 283 students at two major universities in Washington and Wisconsin in 2013. Recreational use of marijuana became legal in Washington in 2012. The purpose of the study, which was published in the Journal of American College Health, was to understand college students’ views and experiences regarding marijuana, voting behaviors and early perceptions of the impact of legislation. About 46% of participants in Washington said they voted for legalization, while about 50% in Wisconsin said given the opportunity, they would vote to legalize marijuana.

Participants most commonly responded that legalization did not change their attitudes towards marijuana. The students completed phone interviews and expressed a range of perspectives on marijuana legalization:

  • “There’s medical reasons for it. It must not be all bad if the state passed the bill.”
  • “Marijuana is a natural thing, medical use has always been around, it’s fine to use in moderation.”
  • “I just learned more about it and how it doesn’t really have a negative effect on your health and might improve your health.”
  • “If it is accepted by the government, it is more acceptable by me, too.”
  • “I don’t approve of recreational use, only medicinal.”
  • “I think it’s fine and has it’s benefits, but I think smoking in general is bad for health.”

Moreno thinks more attention is needed for young adults who perceive that legalization implies safety, and Dr. Leslie Walker, division chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, agrees.

Concerns for Developing Brains

“Since recreational marijuana use became legal, some adolescents and young adults think it’s become okay to use,” said Walker. “This research shows now that recreational use is legal, there is another pool of young people at risk for marijuana use and dependency. Before legalization, this group might have avoided the substance altogether.”

Walker points out that marijuana use frequently goes with alcohol consumption, and those two substances together further compound the user’s altered mental state.

“Young people are more likely to get into situations they don’t want to be in if they smoke marijuana and drink,” said Walker. “We see higher rates of pregnancy and STDs when that happens.”

Marijuana use is a particular concern in younger teens because it impacts brain development at a critical age. But college-age young adults need to be conscious of that problem, too—the brain is not fully formed until the mid-20s, said Walker.

Dr. Megan Moreno, a researcher at Seattle Children's Research Institute, studied college students' views regarding marijuana amid legislation.
Dr. Megan Moreno, a researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, studied college students’ views regarding marijuana amid legislation.

She cites a recent Dutch study based on grades of students enrolled at Maastricht University. The research showed that when access to legal marijuana was temporarily restricted, those who could no longer buy it did better in their studies. The effect was especially pronounced in courses requiring math skills.

Moreno says the findings in her study on voting behavior confirm that a large percentage of the younger generation supports marijuana legalization, and she says there is a need to educate youth about marijuana with these new laws.

“Pediatricians should discuss how marijuana impacts developing brains with adolescent and young adult patients,” said Moreno. “Before they go off to college, or when they come home for their checkups, we should be incorporating messages about the effects of marijuana into clinical visits.”