Prohibition Pot Prices Aren’t Deterring Teen Marijuana Use


The Washington Post is the latest media outlet to report on the UC Davis study that’s claiming Washington’s 8th & 10th graders have been influenced by marijuana legalization there, reducing their perception of marijuana’s harm and leading them to smoke it more.

Christopher Ingraham does his usual great job framing the study as an outlier compared to numerous reports of legalization causing no increase in teen marijuana use nationally or in Colorado. In his diligence to provide voices of balance on the issue, he emailed New York University professor of public policy, Mark A. R. Kleiman, the man who was tapped by Washington State to be their cannabis policy consultant, to offer his opinion:

In an email, Kleiman pointed out that in Washington state, the recreational marijuana market didn’t open until halfway through 2014, and then only in limited form. That’s halfway through the “after” period (2013 to 2015) in the JAMA Pediatrics study.

Kleiman said there’s an even easier way to ensure that adolescent marijuana use remains at a minimum level — make sure marijuana doesn’t become too cheap.

“There’s reason to think that adolescents are more price-sensitive than adults with respect to cannabis use,” he said, “so I’d advise states that legalize to do what they can to keep prices from falling.”

What reason would that be? Extensive research? Reports from teens themselves? Just a wild-ass guess?

The hypothesis that high marijuana prices should dissuade teen marijuana smoking doesn’t pass the smell test. Prohibition has already jacked the price of marijuana far above what its natural cost should be, yet teen marijuana use has risen and fallen with no correlation to its change in price. Legalization in the west has dramatically lowered the price of marijuana, yet teen marijuana use rates are remaining steady.

Comparing Marijuana Prices to Teen Marijuana Use Rates

I decided to see how marijuana price correlates with teen marijuana use. If Kleiman’s right, we should find more marijuana use where the price is low and vice-versa.

At first glace, there seems to be a little bit of a correlation there. Twenty-two states where the price of marijuana is greater than the US average of $320 an ounce are also states where the monthly use of marijuana by teens is below the national average of 7.2 percent.

But still, it’s an imperfect measure. You can find two legal states, Colorado and Oregon, where the price of marijuana is below $250. Their teen use of marijuana is 11.13 and 9.42 percent, respectively. Yet you can find two illegal states, Vermont and New Hampshire, where the price of marijuana is around $350, and their teen use rates are similar to Colorado and Oregon, at 10.86 and 9.44, respectively.

You can find two rural prohibition states, Utah and Idaho, where the price of marijuana is around $280. Their teen use of marijuana is 4.54 and 6.51 percent, respectively. Yet you can find two other rural prohibition states, Iowa and North Dakota, where the price of marijuana is over $360, and their teen use rates are similar to Utah and Idaho, at 5.30 and 6.21 percent, respectively.

Comparing Marijuana Prices to Teen Marijuana Use Increases

But that’s just a snapshot in time. The UC Davis study Kleiman is commenting on makes the claim that legalization increased young teen usage in Washington between 2010 and 2015, even though it didn’t in Colorado or nationally. What if we take a look at how teen marijuana use has changed between 2010 and 2015?

This gives us even less of a correlation than the current price data. High price states were pretty evenly split between teen marijuana use increases and decreases. Low price states were also nearly evenly split.

A few surprises stand out in this analysis. While the legal states of Colorado and Washington saw increases in teen use along with their low prices, Oregon’s teen use rates didn’t budge with their lowest prices in the nation. Meanwhile, North Dakota has both the most expensive marijuana and the greatest rate of teen marijuana use increase. Virginia, with the second-most expensive marijuana in the country saw a nearly 20 percent decline in teen use rates. Oklahoma had the greatest decrease in teen use rates, yet has marijuana costing $350 an ounce.

Expensive Marijuana Means More Teen Dealers

No matter how you slice and dice this data, it misses a crucial point: the artificially-inflated price of marijuana only guarantees more market share for illegal dealers, many of whom are teenagers.

Kleiman and other public policy experts base this Keep Pot Expensive idea on the data from alcohol and tobacco. It has been shown that increased taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have helped contribute to the massive declines in use of those substances, now down to the lowest recorded levels ever.

There’s only one problem with applying that policy to marijuana: few people have the resources and ability to grow tobacco or distill spirits efficiently enough to sell them for profit at prices below the legal market.

We’re already seeing how 20-to-37 percent taxation on marijuana in the legal states has left a thriving underground market for marijuana, aided by the legality of home growing (except Washington) and personal possession. It’s that market that is selling to the teens, not the overtaxed legal market.

If we really want to reduce teen use of marijuana, the goal should be to move as much of that market into the adults-only stores that check ID as we can. The better the legal market can compete with the low costs of home growing, the more difficult it becomes to make a living as an illegal weed dealer who sells to kids.

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