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Drug Law

Myth Busted -- Tough Marijuana Laws Don't Reduce Use

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The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently released its annual state-by-state breakdown of drug use rates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And once again, the data (based on the 2006 and 2007 surveys) don’t match the official mythology — namely, that tough anti-marijuana laws reduce marijuana use.

As of the survey dates, 11 states had decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, while 39 retained the threat of arrest and jail for even small-time marijuana possession. And, like previous surveys, use rates in the decriminalized states were statistically indistinguishable from the non-decriminalized states. Some decriminalized states, such as Nebraska and Mississippi, had use rates well below the national average. And some that maintain criminal penalties, such as New Hampshire and the District of Columbia, were well above the national average.

Sometimes decriminalized states had lower marijuana use rates than neighboring states that still jail marijuana users. Mississippi, for example, was lower than Louisiana; Nebraska was lower than Kansas.

This trend has been consistent in the nearly a decade that SAMHSA has been doing these state breakdowns, yet it didn’t stop decriminalization opponents in Massachusetts from claiming last year that decriminalization would somehow turn their state into a sea of potheads.

The other persistent myth is that medical marijuana laws increase teen marijuana use by “sending the wrong message to kids.” Again, the real-world trend doesn’t quite match the myth. Year-to-year changes in past-month marijuana use for 12-to-17-year-olds were almost all statistically insignificant. A few medical marijuana states showed increases while others showed drops, but none of the changes were large enough to be proof of a real trend. And state-based surveys, which have much larger samples within each state and thus are far more reliable, have consistently shown teen marijuana use decreasing in medical marijuana states since the laws took effect.

Wouldn’t it be nice if legislators everywhere could be persuaded to base laws on facts instead of myths?

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