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Why Teen Drug Use Surveys Are Meaningless

new analysis of data from Monitoring the Future finds that after California decriminalized marijuana on January 1, 2011, the state’s high school students self-reported more marijuana use and more favorable attitudes toward marijuana compared to those nationally.

So what?

Whether or not drug use surveys accurately measure and report real trends, direct analyses (detailed below) show they have nothing to do with any important social outcome. They’re a distraction from the larger, disastrous failure of the 30-year War on Drugs to stem the epidemic of fatal and injurious drug abuse after inflicting 50 million arrests and five million imprisonments.

A decade ago, we carefully correlated 30 years (1975 through 2004) of Monitoring the Future’s surveys of teenagers' self-reported daily, monthly, and annual drug use trends for six different drug categories with corresponding trends in an exhaustive array of 30 social outcome measures among teens. These outcomes included crime, violence arrest, property offense arrest, murder, suicide, violent death, traffic death, school graduation and dropout, test scores, getting into fights, stealing, robbery, violence injuries, and arson – both contemporaneous and lagged a few years.

Our study, published in the Journal of School Health, not only found teenage marijuana use trends and levels irrelevant to any important youthful social trend, it found better social outcomes among teens in years in which they reported using marijuana more.  Baby Boomers, who seldom used marijuana during high school years, had worse outcomes that Gen Xers, who smoked marijuana more.

Drug use surveys may be objects of curiosity and amusement, but their uselessness (in fact, harmfulness) to reasoned drug policy continues to the present. Teenage marijuana use has remained fairly stable for the past 15 years, yet teenage drug overdose mortality rose sharply in the 2000s, then fell recently, and other measures generally declined.

To test the MTF study authors’ implication that California’s higher level of self-reported teenage marijuana use after decriminalization will bring greater risks, we assembled an array of crime, mortality and other indexes among the state’s teens compared to those nationally, comparing the three years after decriminalization (2011-2013) to the three years before (2008-2010).

The results, summarized in Table 1, were stunning. California teenagers showed generally large improvements in crime, violent death, school dropout, and unhealthy natality outcomes after marijuana was decriminalized and their marijuana arrests plummeted. In fact, their improvements were greater than those registered by teenagers nationally.  Marijuana involvement in fatal traffic crashes showed a smaller increase among California teens than among those nationally, though drug testing of drivers remains inadequate. The only trend for which California’s was less favorable than the national trend was deaths from accidents (excluding those from drugs, guns, and traffic crashes), and the difference was small.

Table 1. Key teenage crime, mortality, driving, education, and natality outcomes, California vs. the rest of the United States, before and after California decriminalized marijuana*

Rate per 100,000

population, age 10-17

California

 

Rest of U.S.

2008-2010

2011-2013

CA Change 

2008-2010

2011-2013

US Change 

Criminal arrest

4,811.3

2,949.2

-39%

5,788.6

4,062.3

-30%

   Violent crime

832.3 

571.8 

-31%

918.6 

717.3 

-22%

     Homicide

4.5 

2.7 

-41%

3.4 

 2.3

-30%

     Rape                         

5.2 

3.6 

-31%

9.6 

8.5 

-11%

     Robbery

143.5 

87.2 

-39%

87.4 

62.9 

-28%

     Assault

679.1 

478.3 

-30%

818.2 

643.5 

-21%

   Property crime

523.3 

343.9 

-34%

1,328.2

971.6 

-27%

   Marijuana possession  

343.2 

132.4 

-61%

336.4 

302.0 

-10%

   Other drug offense      

622.0 

336.8 

-46%

622.1 

486.1 

-22%

Violent death

11.4 

9.2 

-19%

15.6 

13.8 

-11%

   Drug overdose

0.7 

0.5 

-28%

0.9 

0.7 

-21%

   Firearms

4.0 

2.9 

-29%

3.6 

3.5 

  -4%

   Suicide

2.1 

2.1 

   0%

3.1 

3.7 

 20%

   Homicide

3.9 

2.6 

-33%

2.7 

2.2 

-21%

   Accidents/undet

5.4 

4.5 

-16%

9.7 

7.9 

-18%

     Traffic

3.1 

2.5 

-21%

5.8 

4.7 

-19%

      Marijuana impaired

8.6% 

9.4% 

   9%

6.1% 

6.9% 

 13%

School dropout

5.1% 

4.0% 

-20%

na

na

na

Births, low birthweight

135.9

99.3

-27% 

197.5 

146.9 

-26% 

Of particular relevance, those teenage measures which might be considered closest to marijuana abuse all showed bigger declines after marijuana decriminalization in California than they did nationally. These include arrests for other drugs and for property crimes, deaths from drug overdose and traffic crashes, school dropout, and births of low-birthweight babies.

Of course, no claim is made that more pot smoking improves teenage behaviors; only that self-reported use of marijuana is completely irrelevant to any important risk. Ironically, given California's outcomes, those who insist that marijuana use is a major factor in teenage risks might be happy if more teenagers are using marijuana. Alternatively, even assuming that more marijuana use contributes to teenage risk, the benefits of reduced arrest for marijuana more than offset any harm from using the drug itself.

Those who emotionally peddle pointless drug-use surveys in the face of evidence showing that they measure nothing important are distracting from discussion of drug policy reform. The best facts so far show California teenagers are responding very responsibly to marijuana decriminalization, and further advances toward legalization for all ages can safely proceed.

*Sources: Centers for Disease Control, WISQARS Fatal Injury Reports (2015) and Natality Information (2015); Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime ReportsPersons Arrested (2015); California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, CJSC Statistics: Arrests (2014); Fatality Analysis Reporting System, FARS Encyclopedia (2015); California Department of Education, DataQuest (2015). All comparisons are of annual reports, 2008-2013. School dropout rates are the average of one-year dropout rates. Births, low birthweight is the rate of babies with a birthweight of less than 2,500 grams born to mothers under age 20 per 100,000 females ages 10-19. Outcomes are divided by respective populations ages 10-17, and for marijuana impaired driving, drivers in fatal crashes ages 15-19, for California and nationally to produce rates.

Keywords: drug policy, marijuana, Mike Males

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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