Adults Lead Nationwide Increases in Marijuana Smoking, Not Teenagers

As media outlets report on the latest numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use & Health (NSDUH), they tend to frame their reporting on the assumption that it is a bad thing that more people are smoking marijuana as attitudes and laws change, making people less afraid to use it.

I’m here to show you that not only are increases in marijuana not a bad thing – they are good thing we ought to be encouraging.

First, the basics. The NSDUH is a survey that’s run in various incarnations since the 1970s. Changes to definitions and data gathering techniques brought the NSDUH to its current form in 2002, when it changed from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. So, for apples-to-apples comparisons[i], we will start our look at the 2002 data.

One thing we know from the data is that more people are admitting to their regular use of cannabis. Sometimes website report this as “more people smoking pot”, but in truth, all we can really guarantee is more people say they’re smoking pot when asked by an anonymous pollster from the federal government about their illegal habits.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 1 - US 12+

These figures are for all respondents, age 12 and older, when asked if they have consumed cannabis in the past thirty days. In the 2002-2003 data, we find a little over six percent of Americans toked monthly. By 2008-2009, the year preceding the advancement of medical marijuana dispensaries in some western states, it had inched up to almost six-and-a-half percent. Our latest figures from 2013-2014 show nearly eight percent admitting to monthly marijuana use, a relative increase of over a quarter.

Another thing we can tease out of the data is that the greatest increases in monthly marijuana use came in the states that have legalized medical use or personal use of marijuana, with two notable exceptions.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 2 - States 12+

Since 2002, Colorado and Washington have experienced an increase of over 70 percent in monthly toking. But oddly, Georgia and Utah show up in the list of states with the top ten greatest increases in monthly marijuana use since 2002.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 3 - States 12+ Bottom

In fact, the only states to have lower monthly toking rates in 2013-2014 compared to 2002-2003 are Nebraska and South Dakota. People almost everywhere in America are smoking pot more often than they did over a decade ago.

But is this a bad thing? Let’s dig deeper into the numbers.

When media report on the figures from NSDUH for people aged 12 and older, it helps conceal the fact that legalization is leading to far more adults smoking pot than teenagers.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 4 - States 12-17

Looking at the top five states with greatest increases among the 12-17 age group since 2002 finds that they’re all legalized states (& DC) or California, which has exceptionally easy access to medical marijuana. However, when you shift the focus to the change in teen use since legalization occurred, something interesting happens.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 5 - States 12-17 Past Year

While Colorado and California still show up in the top five greatest year-to-year increases following the passage of legalization in two states in 2012, the top ten increases are dominated by prohibition states. Legalized states saw an average year-to-year increase of 6.68 percent, prohibition states saw an average increase of 0.87 percent, and medical marijuana states actually saw a decrease of 1.95 percent. The average year-to-year increase in monthly teen pot smoking across the US was 0.98 percent.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 6 - States 18-25

Meanwhile, among the young adults aged 18-25, since 2002 we see Colorado with the greatest increase at 44.16 percent. Yet again, half the states in the top ten are prohibition states, with Georgia second to Colorado in this statistic. And as before, shift the focus to the year since legalization and a strange result occurs.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 7 - States 18-25 Past-Year

Only nine states saw an increase in past-year monthly toking rates among young adults and none of those states legalized marijuana. Colorado saw an over 2 percent decline and Washington saw an 11.5 percent decline.

Let’s look now at the adults aged 26 and older for the real change in marijuana use rates.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 8 - States 26+

Once again, we see Washington and Colorado at the top of the list with rates that have more than doubled since 2002. But there again are Utah and Georgia with rates that are almost double. And once again, looking at the past-year increase paints a different picture.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 9 - States 26+ Past-Year

Only seven states posted a past-year monthly-toking increase among older adults. But Colorado’s was the lowest increase at almost 3 percent, while Washington actually decreased by over 4 percent. Taking all these figures into account, what we find is that since 2002, fewer teens nationwide are toking monthly, some more young adults are toking, but vastly more older adults are toking.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 10 - US Avg by Age

Yet over the past year of legalization, we see nationwide declines in adult toking and only a slight increase among teenagers. Now let’s look at Colorado and Washington specifically.

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 11 - CO WA 12-17

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 12 - CO WA 18-25

NSDUH 2014 Monthly 13 - CO WA 26+

It appears that even the legalized states of Colorado and Washington somewhat match the overall US trends, as older people have reported greater increases in the monthly smoking rate than teenagers. However, there was a one-year increase among teenagers in those states greater than the national average.

In my next post, we’ll examine other statistics, such as workplace absenteeism, school graduation rates, highway fatalities, and use of other substances to determine whether or not these rises in American marijuana use are a good thing or not.


[i] Honestly, there are no true year-to-year apples-to-apples comparisons due to inconsistent reporting by the states, changes to the definitions of cannabis dependence, and other factors. It’s more like Granny-Smith-apples-to-Red-Delicious-apples comparisons

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 191 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Russ Belville Show - The Voice of the Marijuana Nation, a two-hour live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on RadicalRuss.com (learn more on our Podcast page).  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 50 North American cities.