Every day in the United States, 7,000 Americans try cannabis for the first time. Today there are at least 10 million more weed smokers in this shining city on a hill than there were 12 years ago. In 2002, 6.2 percent of Americans over 12 were 420-friendly; in 2014, 8.4 percent were. And the number of daily pot smokers in the U.S. nearly doubled over that time period.
And yet: The number of people with a pot “problem” went down.
Such are the findings of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey shows that 1.8 percent of Americans fit the diagnostic criteria for marijuana abuse or dependency in 2002, but only 1.6 percent did in 2014. That small decline comes despite the fact that 3.5 percent of the country smoked weed daily in the latter year, while only 2 percent did in the former one.
This somewhat paradoxical result has significant political implications. The increase in use is almost certainly linked to the drug’s increasing legality. A Lancet Psychiatry analysis of the survey data found that in 2002, when medical marijuana was legal in six states, 50 percent of Americans believed that smoking marijuana twice a week posed a “great risk” to one’s health. In 2014, when medicinal weed was legal in 25 states — and recreational marijuana was legal in 2 — only 33 percent of Americans held that opinion.
Thus, legalizing marijuana appears to decrease its stigma and increase its use. With five states considering full legalization this November, such a finding would seem like welcome ammunition to supporters of the drug’s prohibition — were it not for the fact that fewer people are abusing the drug.
So, is this distinction semantic or substantive? Are “problem stoners” just less ashamed of their habits than they previously were? Or did the stigma surrounding marijuana in the early aughts lead some functional weedaholics to identify as abusers?
This question may not allow for an “objective” answer. But there is some evidence to support the idea that there are fewer troubled potheads in the country, even as the number of recreational users has increased.
For one, as the CDC points out, a significant percentage of new smokers may be using the drug for medicinal purposes, since marijuana has become more widely available for prescription. For another, to be a clinical “abuser” of marijuana, the drug must create problems for the user “at work, home, and school,” “with family or friends,” or else “with the law.” As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham notes, in a society where pot is less stigmatized, weed smokers are less likely to encounter such problems:
It’s also likely that changing laws on marijuana use, and changing public attitudes toward the drug, help reduce some of the problem behaviors that lead to abuse or dependence. One of the criteria for abuse, for instance, is “trouble with the law” on account of the drug. It stands to reason that fewer marijuana users have trouble with the law when the law allows marijuana use.
But the most significant factor may be the changing demographic profile of the American weed smoker: While Americans 18 and older are toking up more, those between the ages of 12 and 17 are now 10 percent less likely to have smoked marijuana in the past month than they were in 2002. And, in fact, the overall drop in marijuana abuse was driven by a 37 percent decrease in abuse (and/or dependency) among U.S. teenagers.
Considering how prominently concerns about adolescent drug abuse have featured in the arguments of marijuana prohibitionists, those who favor legalization should get a nice buzz off that finding.