Impacts of Medical Marijuana Laws on Young Americans Across the Developmental Spectrum

  • Laura A. SchmidtEmail author
  • Laurie M. Jacobs
  • David Vlahov
  • Joanne Spetz


Introduction State legalization of marijuana for medical purposes could increase illicit marijuana use among young people. Medical marijuana laws may boost the availability of marijuana and reduce perceptions of its harmfulness, leading more young people to try it. Prior studies report little evidence that these laws are impacting marijuana consumption by young Americans, and none have systematically compared developmentally distinct age groups. Methods We performed multilevel, serial cross-sectional analyses on ten annual waves of U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, from 2004 to 2013, comparing young people in states with and without medical marijuana laws. Disaggregated analyses compared multiple measures of marijuana use across approximately 450,300 individuals in early adolescence (12–14 years), late adolescence (15–17 years) and young adulthood (18–25 years). Results Dwelling in a state that had legalized medical marijuana was not associated with marijuana consumption in the past month among early adolescents, late adolescents or young adults. However, young adults living in medical marijuana states were significantly more likely to have initiated first use in the past year. Conclusions Medical marijuana laws increase the likelihood that young adults will start using marijuana but do not affect more vulnerable developmental groups in early and late adolescence. Delaying the age of first use into young adulthood can reduce the risk of a drug use disorder later in life. Young adults are in the peak years of engagement with illicit drugs and state medical marijuana laws appear to be leading larger numbers to try the drug.


Marijuana Medical marijuana laws Development of substance abuse Adolescence Young adulthood 



We would like to thank our colleagues who assisted in the data collection and technical execution of this manuscript, including Timothy Bates MA, Susan Chapman PhD, Casey Palmer MS, and Juliana Fung of the University of California at San Francisco. We would also like to acknowledge staff at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and the University of Michigan for their assistance in data acquisition and management. This study was supported by a grant from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (Grant No. R01 DA034091) but played no role in the design and conduct of the study; data collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; or in the preparation of this manuscript.

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 52 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies & Department of Anthropology, History and Social ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  2. 2.Community Engagement and Health Policy Program, Clinical and Translational Science InstituteUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  3. 3.School of MedicineUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  4. 4.Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy StudiesUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  5. 5.Yale School of NursingNursing School of Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA
  6. 6.Institute for Health Policy Studies & Department of Family and Community MedicineUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA

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