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Teen marijuana use in Colorado down post-legalization

Regular marijuana use among Colorado middle and high school students declined after the start of legal cannabis sales to adults in the state, new federal data show.

The latest results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health align with data collected thus far by Colorado and, as such, seem to provide some added reassurance to state regulators on a key goal: keeping marijuana out of the hands of kids and teens.

Larry Wolk, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the new federal numbers offer “glimmers of hope.” But he also noted the federal survey’s relatively small sample size and said a more thorough understanding of Colorado youth marijuana use will come next spring, when the state releases its own survey with a larger sample size.

“We at least get a glimmer of reassurance,” Wolk said of the new federal numbers. “I’d say that on the flip side too, if there were an increase. I’d say there’s a glimmer of concern.”

The new results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, or NSDUH, cover the 2015-2016 time period. In those results, 9.08 percent of Colorado youths, aged 12 to 17, reported using marijuana in the month prior to being surveyed, according to the report. During the 2014-2015 period, 11.13 percent of youths that age reported using marijuana in the previous month.

The survey said the decline in use for 12- to 17-year-olds is statistically significant, meaning that it likely really happened and isn’t a paper result caused by a mathematical blip.

“These survey results should come as welcome news to anyone who worried teen marijuana use would increase following legalization,” Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer who was one of the state’s leading proponents for cannabis legalization, said in a statement Monday.

Colorado voters legalized marijuana for recreational use by adults in 2012, but sales at stores did not begin until 2014.

In 2008 and 2009, the NSDUH reported that 10.17 percent of kids in Colorado ages 12 to 17 said they used marijuana in the previous month. While the newer numbers show a decline since that period, the overall trend is considered to be flat because it didn’t have enough statistical certainty.

For all Coloradans over 18 years old, the NSDUH found that past-month marijuana use jumped from 9.72 percent in 2008-2009 to 16.62 percent in 2015-2016 — a statistically significant change. Use by that age group was statistically flat between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 period, though.

The NSDUH is published by a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It releases state data in two-year averages to account for small sample sizes in some states.

“I think the data reflect the trends we were seeing in the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey,” said Mark Bolton, marijuana adviser and senior deputy legal counsel to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “I think we’re encouraged by the numbers.”

In putting together its figures, the NSDUH polled fewer than 2,000 Coloradans of all ages. The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which the state publishes every other year, queried nearly 17,000 teens for its most recent report. That report, released in 2016, found that teen marijuana use had not increased in Colorado following legalization.

The next Healthy Kids Colorado Survey comes out in the spring.

One advantage of the federal survey, though, is it allows comparisons among states. Kevin Sabet, the president and CEO of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is opposed to legalization, said the NSDUH shows that Colorado consistently ranks among the states with the highest marijuana use.

Most concerningly, he said, Colorado was first in the country for people over the age of 12 who reported using marijuana for the first time during the 2015-2016 period — an estimated 3.84 percent. Colorado was also tops for young adults, ages 18 to 25, who reported their first use of marijuana during those years.

Sabet said those figures could be an early indicator of future use increases. He also noted that the recently published NSDUH results do not reveal how many Coloradans are using marijuana more frequently than once a month. Deep dives into earlier NSDUH data found that the number of people using marijuana daily or almost-daily across the country has been increasing.

“It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes over the next several years,” Sabet said. “Two years does not make a trend. We want to look at more data points over more than just two years.”

Still, Bolton said the new federal numbers are reason for Colorado to continue its regulatory efforts. The state has ferried resources toward efforts such as youth drug education and prevention programs. It has also imposed ID requirements at marijuana stores, restrictions on advertising, and rules on packaging and labeling.

“We’ve made a strong commitment in this administration to try and decrease youth use,” he said. “So while we’re encouraged by the numbers, our work will certainly continue.”