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02-02 Youth drug trends change in Colorado after marijuana legalization

Youth drug trends change in Colorado after marijuana legalization

Four years ago, in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states in the United States to legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults. Since then a number of states have followed suit and currently, marijuana is legal in eight states in addition to the District of Columbia.

At this point, when a number of remaining states are debating the move to legalize marijuana it is good to take a look at the effect this move has had on states such as Colorado. On these lines, the Drug Policy Alliance examined the existing data on the effects of legalization in certain categories. The comprehensive report found declines in drug arrests, no increases in traffic fatalities and increased tax revenues in some of the states, due to the legalization. The data from the city of Denver and Colorado’s Department of Public Safety also reflected similar results.

However, the report does not cover all aspects such as the effect of such a move on children. Although the studies and reports cited did not find any major increase in marijuana use by youth, a new survey from the Rise Above Colorado, a youth advocacy group, found a more complex picture.

Drug use among teens stable but increase in alcohol consumption

The Rise Above Colorado’s survey asked questions from over 600 teenagers in the state either over the phone or via the internet. The results revealed that usage of most stimulants – including marijuana, prescription painkillers and methamphetamines – remained mostly stable among the teens. The only substance that saw an increase in use was alcohol. Further, a survey conducted in 2013 by the Rise Above Colorado, revealed that 33 percent of the teens reported using alcohol. In 2016, that percentage increased to 46 percent. Despite its legality, marijuana use by teens dropped very slightly, from 16 to 15 percent.

Other findings included:

  • Mental health plays a strong role in substance use among teens. Teens who had six or more difficult days used alcohol and marijuana twice as often compared to their peers.
  • Teen substance use is often overestimated by their peers.
  • Teens are more aware of their parents’ attitudes towards drug and alcohol use.

However, the survey also revealed a somewhat disturbing trend. There was an increase in the use of alcohol among respondents aged 12 years from 10 percent in 2013 to 29 percent in 2016.

Additionally, in the same age group:

  • 9 percent reported using marijuana;
  • 4 percent reported using methamphetamines; and
  • 3 percent reported using prescription painkillers.

In 2013, the percentages for the above in the same age group were zero. “While the research results did not show an increase in overall drug use, we know that teen use poses health risks to developing adolescent brains and seeing kids trying drugs at younger ages than we have previously seen is cause for great concern,” said Rise Above Colorado’s executive director Kent MacLennan in a press release. “To address this risk, we need to further expand prevention programs and implore educators to start skill-building education efforts even earlier than many have anticipated.” 

Early warning signs

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says early experimentation with drugs and alcohol is common in the U.S. Early substance abuse is often spurred by feelings of invulnerability and a lack of ability to think long-term, which usually leads to problems later in life. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), over 15 percent of teens who begin drinking by the time they turn 14 eventually develop alcohol use disorders – compared to only 2 percent of those adolescents who wait until age 21. The NIDA also observed that a 2012 study found that nearly 13 percent of people with a substance abuse problem began using marijuana by age 14.

The AACAP warns that teenagers from the following background are more vulnerable to developing drug and alcohol problems:

  • Have a family history of addiction problems
  • Deal with depression
  • Have low self-esteem or feel they don’t fit in with their peers

Seeking professional help

If left untreated, drug and alcohol problems in teens can be devastating, hampering their education and running relationships with friends and family. Fortunately, substance use disorders are treatable.

Often, treatment can involve professional intervention in a residential environment. The Rancho San Diego is Sovereign Health’s residential treatment center for adolescents aged 12 to 17 years. Located in a quiet canyon east of San Diego, it has a pleasant, summer camp-like environment, which is an ideal place for teens to work through their problems and rebuild their lives. With round-the-clock crisis monitoring, fun outings and an education program, Rancho San Diego should be your first choice in seeking treatment. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline. 

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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