Survey shows teens want lax marijuana laws

"There are a lot of misperceptions regarding the term 'legalization'," says Joseph Palamar.  "A lot of people think that 'legalization' means anyone can purchase or sell the drug and that the drug will be freely available on shelves at your nearest store. But that is absolutely not the case." (Credit: Mayu Shimizu/Flickr)

The majority of high school seniors in the United States are in favor of more liberal marijuana policies, according to a new study that shows that 33 percent believe it should be entirely legal.

A new survey asked 11,594 students a variety of questions to gauge their attitudes towards marijuana use and policy from 2007-2011. Newer (2012) data were not analyzed because two states legalized recreational use after 2011.


There’s a need to examine positions toward legalization, researchers say, particularly among those who are at the highest risk for initiation—adolescents approaching adulthood. With public opinion tending to drive policy in the US, an analysis of such positions is important as these adolescents are (or soon will be) of age to vote and perhaps influence marijuana policy.

The study used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), a nation-wide ongoing annual study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students that is administered in approximately 130 public and private schools throughout 48 states in the US. Roughly 15,000 high school seniors are assessed annually.

Results of the survey, published online in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, show that 28.5 percent of high school seniors say if not legalized, possessing marijuana should be treated as a minor violation. Of those remaining, 25.6 percent say it should be a crime and 12.9 percent are unsure. In regard to who should be able to purchase marijuana (if legal), 29.2 percent say no one, 48 percent say only adults, 10.4 percent say anyone should be able to purchase it, and 12.4 percent are unsure.

Young women are significantly less likely to say marijuana should be legal, with only 26.7 percent surveyed in favor of legalization, compared to 39.2 percent of young men. Furthermore, young women are less likely to respond that marijuana, if legal, should only be sold to adults.

Big cities, small towns

When compared with white students, those who identify as black or Hispanic are more likely to support more liberal marijuana policies.

“Studies suggest that blacks and Hispanics are less likely to use illicit drugs such as marijuana, yet arrest and incarceration rates for drug possession tend to be higher for these subgroups,” says Joseph J. Palamar, assistant professor of population health at New York University.

“Higher arrest rates may be due to the fact that minorities are more likely to engage in riskier practices such as using or purchasing on the street. These results are important as they show that even though blacks and Hispanics tend to use marijuana and other illicit drugs at lower rates than whites, they are more likely to support legalization.”

The survey also shows that respondents who live in a small or large city are more likely to favor legalization and treating use as a violation, when compared to those residing in non-urban areas. Big cities tend to have higher rates of marijuana use, so there may be higher exposure to marijuana users than in non-urban areas, which may explain these findings, Palamar says.

Friends and politics

Social stigma toward marijuana use appears to have a significant influence on adolescences’ views—39.5 percent of those surveyed whose friends disapprove of marijuana use say it should be a crime, compared to the 10.7 percent of those whose friends don’t disapprove. Likewise, the majority of students who identify as highly religious are at low odds for supporting more liberal policies. However, almost half (47.4 percent) of them say they are in favor of either legalization or treating marijuana use as a violation.

“This may be because marijuana use is becoming seen as less of a moral issue,” Palamar says, “because findings from a recent Pew national survey showed that in 2013, only 32 percent of adults in the US felt use was morally “wrong,” compared to 50 percent in 2006.”

The level of education students’ parents have attained is also a factor; those with high parent educational attainment aree more likely to support legalization, when compared to those with parents of low educational attainment.

Unsurprisingly, political affiliation tends to be strongly associated with positions toward legalization. Conservatives are consistently against legalization and decriminalization, and liberals are consistently at higher odds for supporting more liberal policies. However, while conservatives are less likely to support marijuana being sold to anyone or only adults, both liberals and moderates are more likely to support marijuana only being sold to adults and are less likely to favor sales to anyone. This implies that these groups tend to support legalization, but with age regulation.

“There are a lot of misperceptions regarding the term ‘legalization,” Palamar says.  “A lot of people think that ‘legalization’ means anyone can purchase or sell the drug and that the drug will be freely available on shelves at your nearest store. But that is absolutely not the case. Legalization comes with strict regulation. Future studies and polls need to adequately define the meaning of legalization.

Other substance use

Students who smoke cigarettes or use alcohol are more likely to favor marijuana legalization or treating its use as a violation. Obliquely, students who have smoked cigarettes or used alcohol are more likely to say that marijuana, if legal, should be sold only to adults.

The study found not only more recent, but more frequent, marijuana use to be “robustly” associated with support for each form of legalization assessed. Incidentally, 7.1 percent of lifetime marijuana users feel that marijuana use should be a crime, while 16.7 percent and 27.1 percent of non-lifetime users feel that use should be legal or a violation, respectively.

Likewise, 17.7 percent of lifetime users feel that if legal, marijuana should be sold to no one, and 38.5 percent of non-lifetime users feel marijuana, if legal, should be sold to adults.

“These findings actually break some common misconceptions regarding support for marijuana legalization,” Palamar says. “Not all marijuana users support legalization, and a large percentage of those who have never used marijuana now support more liberal policies.

“So support for legalization doesn’t necessarily mean that one wants to go out and smoke a legal joint. It might instead mean that he or she supports liberty, increased tax revenues, or a reduction in the black market and associated crime. Other individuals feel legalization may reduce access to youth and make the drug more difficult to obtain, similar to alcohol.”

The study used national data to examine positions toward various forms of legalization, and assessed positions towards a specific user control—age-restricted access. Palamar urges that research continue to examine positions towards marijuana policy, as public opinion is a driving factor of policy and opinions may also predict future use.

Source: NYU