If Marijuana Is Legalized, Who Will Start Using More of It?

Considerations for the debate about age and pot.
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Will older people start using more marijuana if it's legalized? (Ben Smith/Flickr)

Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, doesn't think kids and teens are going to start using marijuana more frequently if the drug is fully legalized across the country. The reason is simple: They can already get pot pretty easily.

"There are three national surveys in which young people say it's now easier to buy marijuana today that it is to buy alcohol. In every high school in America, marijuana use is now more or less omnipresent. In the surveys for the last thirty years, 80 percent of young people say it's easy to get marijuana. So I don't think that's the group where it's going to go up. If anything, you're going to take away some of that forbidden fruit attraction to marijuana," he said during a panel discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week.

So who will start using more marijuana if it's fully legalized? Nadelmann, a legalization advocate whose organization was founded to stop the "war on drugs," points to the grandparents of the world. "It's going to be people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s," he said. "It's going to be older people going, 'Damn, it helps with that arthritis, I didn't realize that.' Or, 'It helps me sleep at night,' or 'I actually find I prefer it to having a drink at the end of the night, or 'You know what, I prefer it to the pharmaceuticals my doctor is giving me for my mood or my anxiety.'"

It's difficult to judge which populations would be most affected by the full legalization of marijuana in the U.S. Currently, federal law bans all sale and possession of the drug, but 18 states plus Washington, D.C. allow the use of medical marijuana, and voters in Colorado and Washington state approved ballot initiatives that allow limited possession for recreational use. Opponents often argue that legalization will increase abuse among young people, although use is already somewhat common: From 2009 to 2012, nearly half of 12th graders and a third of 10th graders across the country reported having used weed at least once, according to research conducted by the University of Michigan and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

If Nadelmann is right, then, legalization opponents who are worried about increased drug use among young people have misplaced their concern. What's more is that the use of synthetic alternatives to marijuana, marketed as "fake weed," has already been rising among young people. This synthetic sister to weed is reportedly available at gas stations and convenience stores, and although kids often assume it's legal, five of the chemical compounds found in synthetic cannabis are are Schedule I controlled substances under federal law.

The point? Whether or not the substance is truly legal might not matter; kids have been using pot and pot look-a-likes regardless.

You can see Nadelmann's full comments on marijuana legalization below:

Via the Aspen Institute

For full coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival, see here.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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