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Adolescents’ problems with pot decline as more states legalize marijuana

A survey of more than 216,000 adolescents from all 50 states indicates the number of teens with marijuana-related problems is in fact declining. Similarly, the rates of marijuana use among young people are falling despite the fact more U.S. states are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use and the number of adults using the drug has increased.

Researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis examined data on drug use collected from young people over a 12-year span, aged between 12 and 17. The found that the number of adolescents who had problems related to marijuana – such as becoming dependent or other issues – declined by 24% from 2002 to 2013.

Over the same period, kids reported fewer instances of marijuana use in 2013 than in 2002. This cause the rate to fall by 10%.

These drops were accompanied by reductions in behavioral problems, including fighting, property crimes and selling drugs. The researchers found that the two trends are connected. As children became less likely to engage in problematic behavior, they also became less likely to have problems with marijuana.

Richard A. Grucza, PHD, an associate profession of psychiatry and the study’s first author, explained that those behavioral problems often are signs of childhood psychiatric disorders.

“We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and abuse,” he said. “We don’t know how legalization is affecting young marijuana users, but it could be that many kids with behavioral problems are more likely to get treatment earlier in childhood, making them less likely to turn to pot during adolescence. But whatever is happening with these behavioral issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of marijuana decriminalization.”

The new study is published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The data was gathered as part of a confidential, computerized study called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It surveys young people from difference, racial, ethnic, income and ideological backgrounds in all 50 states about their drug use, abuse and dependence.

In 2002, over 16% of those aged between 12 and 17 reported using marijuana during the previous year. That number fell to just below 14% by 2013. Also, the percentage of young people with marijuana-use disorders declined from around 4% to about 3% over the period.

At the same time, the number of kids in the study who reported having serious behavioral problems – such as getting onto fights, stealing, selling drugs or bringing weapons to school – also declined over the 12-year study period.

“Other research shows that psychiatric disorders earlier in childhood are strong predictors of marijuana use later on,” Grucza said. “So it’s likely that if these disruptive behaviors are recognized earlier in life, we may be able to deliver therapies that will help prevent marijuana problems — and possibly problems with alcohol and other drugs, too.”