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Study highlights increased recreational cannabis use by youth in legalized states

The legalization of recreational cannabis has increased use by youth and adults, according to a new study.1

The findings, published in Addiction, contradict claims that recreational cannabis legalization (RCL) has no impact on cannabis use.

Recreational cannabis legalization has gained momentum

In 2016, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada made recreational cannabis use legal.1,2

Some studies have analyzed whether cannabis use by either adults or youth has changed in response to this legalization.1

This newly published study, from the University of California San Diego, is one of the few to evaluate patterns in cannabis use in both youth and adults in response to recreational legalization. 

Researchers used longitudinal data from the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) study, a nationally representative study conducted by the National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

The PATH study began collecting data on tobacco use in 2013 and, in waves 3 and 4 which ran from 2015 to 2018, collected data on cannabis use.3

These two waves provided the data for this particular study.1

Both youth and adults are more likely to become cannabis users in RCL states

21,863 people were included in the study, including 14,938 adults 21 and older and 6,925 youth younger than 21.1

It is important to note that 21 is the legal age for recreational cannabis use in RCL states. 

Participants were asked, “Have you ever used cannabis, hash, grass pot, or weed in the past 30 days?”  and subsequently classified as non-users, users, and weekly users (defined as using a cannabis product at least once a week within the last 30 days).1 

Cannabis consumption habits were compared longitudinally, over one year.

In states with RCL, youth non-users were 118% more likely to become users than youth in non-legalized states.1

For adults, this trend held true; compared to non-legalized states, adult non-users in RCL states were 68% and 82% more likely to become users and weekly users, respectively.1 

Additionally, adult users in RCL states were 46% less likely to become non-users compared to non-legalized states.1

A major point of concern is the illegal use of recreational cannabis by youth in RCL states.

As co-author, Dr. Howuyan Shi pointed out, “It’s especially concerning that increased cannabis use occurs among young people because of the detrimental health effects associated with cannabis use at a young age, including impaired respiratory function, cardiovascular disease and adverse effects on mental health.”4

Longer and larger studies would provide insight for policymakers

As noted by the study authors, there were limitations to the study’s design.

A considerable limitation was that the results were self-reported; participants in non-legalized states may have withheld their user status.1

Each RCL state also may have different legalities surrounding RCL which could reduce the generalizability of these findings.

Additionally, youth cannabis habits may be attributable to an experimental phase common in adolescence. Thus, it is uncertain whether being a user relates to long-term habits.1 

Nonetheless, the study will hopefully provide insight to policymakers involved in RCL.1 


  1. Gunadi, C., B. Zhu, and Y. Shi. (2022). Recreational cannabis legalization and transitions in cannabis use: findings from a nationally representative longitudinal cohort in the United States. Addiction; 1-9. doi: 10.1111/add.15895.
  2. Hartman, M. (2022). Cannabis Overview. National Conference of State Legislatures. Accessed Jun. 5, 2022. Retrieved from  
  3. Population Assessment of Tobacco Study. (2022). National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health. Accessed May 31, 2022. Retrieved from
  4. Galindo, Y. (2022). More young people begin recreational cannabis use illegally in states that legalize it. EurekAlert! Accessed May 31, 2022. Retrieved from

Photo by Afta Putta Gunawan at Pexels

Bryn Evans
Bryn Evans
I graduated with a major in biochemistry, a minor in physics, and a certificate in business from Queen’s University. My long-term goal is to become a family physician (MD) and earn a Master’s in Public Health (MPH). I am passionate about public health, mental health, & wellness. I'm currently completing a Certificate in Effective Writing for Healthcare because I recognize how important it is to communicate effectively with the public!


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