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Washington state legalized pot; how has that affected kids?

Legal marijuana sales began in Washington more than four years ago. Use by kids does not seem to have risen, but the issue is more complicated than that.



Do adolescents who view advertising for marijuana have more positive views about it? UW researcher Denise Walker wants to know.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

When Seattle entrepreneur April Pride was tapped to design a cannabis lifestyle brand for women, she was ecstatic — but trepidatious. “I knew that it was a great opportunity from a professional standpoint, but at the same time, it meant that I was going to have to be really open about my personal life,” says Pride. As the mother of two young boys, Pride had to consider the impact of this cannabis-centered career move on her family.

Pride built Van der Pop, a female-focused line of cannabis accessories, out of her house while her kids were on summer break. “We’d have to take measurements, so cannabis was on the kitchen table,” says Pride. “My kids know what it looks like, they know what it smells like, they know the different ways you can consume it — they’re really in this with me.”

Although Pride never uses cannabis in front of her children, she has no qualms about enjoying its high in their presence. “Cannabis allows me to slow down and not be so concerned about the things that can wait,” says Pride.

Pride hopes that owning her usage will cultivate open lines of communication about cannabis when her kids hit the teen years. “All I can really do is ask my kids to be responsible, because I think it’s naive to think that they will abstain,” says Pride.

Since Seattle’s first legal recreational pot shops opened in 2014, many parents, educators and researchers have wondered about the potential impact on kids. The cannabis on the market today is different than what was available even 10 years ago and eye-catching billboards are everywhere.

But has advertising, greater accessibility, and an increased prevalence of adults using marijuana changed teen usage rates in Washington since legalization took effect?

According to the 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, administered in more than 1,000 schools to 230,000 students representing all 39 Washington counties, the answer is no. Rates of teen marijuana use have not increased since 2014, despite the changing landscape. Although legalization advocates cheered this news, Denise Walker, director of the Innovative Programs Research Group at University of Washington, is concerned by the decreasing number of teens who perceive regular marijuana use as risky. In 2016, about one in five eighth-graders, one in three 10th-graders, and nearly half of 12th-graders perceived no/slight risk to regular use.

“How teens’ perception of harm changes over time will have an impact on marijuana usage rates,” says Walker, who points to a 2018 RAND Corporation study conducted in Southern California that found adolescents who view more advertising for medical marijuana are more likely to have positive views about the substance and use it.

Research shows that marijuana use can have permanent effects on the developing brain when use begins in adolescence, especially with regular or heavy use, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequent or long-term marijuana use is linked to school dropout and lower educational achievement. About 17 percent of regular teen users develop cannabis use disorder.

Lindsey Greto, program manager for the King County Youth Marijuana Prevention and Education Program, has been working to educate the public about the risks of teen marijuana use.

“Most adults don’t realize that the marijuana of today is very different than the product that was available in their young adulthood,” says Greto. Legalization in Washington did not include a cap for potency of THC, the mind-altering component of marijuana. Depending on how analysis was conducted and the sample analyzed, THC potency has increased by 2 to 7 times since the 1970s. New methods for ingestion such as Vaporizable Cannabis Concentrates (VCC) are far more potent than cannabis plants. While average plants contain about 10 to 12 percent THC, vaporized cannabis can contain 60 to 85 percent, an amount that puts young, regular users at higher risk for mental health problems and dependence.

“There’s this history of marijuana being demonized as the gateway to other drugs, and then on the other side, there are marijuana advocates who say it’s not harmful in any way,” says Walker. “But the truth is somewhere in the middle. That nuance has been hard for our culture to digest.”

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