Marijuana Use Among Young People Hits Alarming All-Time High

Posted on January 4, 2023 View all news

Young people are in a critical life stage and honing their ability to make informed choices. Understanding how substance use can impact the formative choices in young adulthood is critical to help position the new generations for success.”

~ Dr. Nora Volkow, MD, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

According to a new report, the number of young adults using marijuana is at the highest level ever recorded. The 2021 Monitoring the Future report reveals that more American youth are smoking and vaping pot than ever before. Surprisingly, this increase is happening while the use of most other substances is significantly decreasing.

Because of the profound effect the drug has on still-developing adolescent and young adult brains, this alarming trend could have a severely negative impact on the health of future generations.

To understand just how big of a problem this is, let’s take a look at what the numbers and the science have to say.   

Young Adult Marijuana Use by the Numbers

(The results are) particularly concerning for teenagers and young adults who have developing brains that are particularly susceptible to the negative effects.”

~ Dr. Maria Rahmandar, MD, Medical Director for Substance Abuse and Prevention, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Chicago

By virtually every measure, young people are using cannabis at record levels. Among young adults between the ages of 19 and 30:

  • 43% have used marijuana within the past year.
  • This is a huge jump from 36% in 2017.
  • Ten years ago, the number was just 29%.
  • Now, 29% admit to using pot within the past month.
  • Perhaps most telling of all, 11% say they use the drug daily.
  • This is a sharp increase from the 8% of daily users in 2016.
  • “Daily” is defined as 20 or more times within the last 30 days.

Marijuana Abuse Among Younger Teens

 “Exposure to marijuana advertisements could influence how adolescents perceive the drug and normalize their use of it, resulting in an increase in the use of marijuana…People who work closely with adolescents, such as parents, pediatricians, clinicians, and school educators, should educate adolescents about the harmfulness of marijuana use…”

~ Dr. Hongying Dai, PhD

But this is not happening in a vacuum. Underage cannabis use has also increased dramatically in recent years, even while the use of other substances has generally gone down. According to the most recent data:

Think about that for a moment – that means that in an average-sized 8th-grade classroom, there are at least one or two young adolescents who smoke or vape pot. By the time they reach their senior year, that number will have jumped to nearly a third of the class.

Vaping Helps Hide Marijuana Use

It’s so much easier to conceal e-cigarette pot use. Everybody knows that characteristic smell of marijuana, but this vapor is different. It’s possible that teenagers are using pot in a much less detectable way.”

~ Dr. Meghan Rabbitt Morean, PhD, Yale University School of Medicine

Cannabis vaping has soared in the past several years, according to researchers at Columbia University. Between 2017 and 2021, the number of young adults who vaped marijuana within the past month doubled. Going from 6% to 12%.

It also continues to increase as the most popular way to get high among all teenagers, especially high school seniors. Between 2017 and 2019, past-month cannabis vaping among 12th-graders nearly tripled, spiking from 5% to 14%.

During that same timeframe, frequent cannabis vaping among all adolescents jumped over two-and-a-half times, while occasional cannabis use with vaping climbed more than 291%.

Of special relevance, young adults who vape nicotine are 42 times more likely to also use vaped marijuana.

These statistics should not be dismissed lightly. Dr. Katherine Keyes, PhD, a Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, says, “Given rising concerns about cannabis vaping in terms of safety, and potential for transition to Cannabis Use Disorder, especially at frequent levels of  use, these results indicate a necessity for public health intervention and increased regulation.”

Marijuana and the Young Brain

Our finding that chronic marijuana users had smaller gray matter volume…might manifest behaviorally, making it difficult to change learned behavior. For example, once someone has learned that using marijuana makes them feel good, it may be difficult for them to unlearn it and motivate themselves to change their behavior, despite the negative consequences.”

~ Dr. Francesca Filbey, PhD, Department Chair, Center for Brain Health, University of Texas at Dallas  

The human brain develops throughout childhood and adolescence, and it continues to mature during young adulthood, until at least age 25. During the teenage years, groups of neurons create specialized connecting circuits between critical brain regions. 

Anything that affects the brain during this vulnerable time can cause a disproportionate amount of long-term or even permanent damage. 

Of special relevance, serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia typically first become evident during adolescence and young adulthood. An underlying cause of many of these disorders is damaged brain regions or pathways. 

A 2016 review of 31 research studies discovered compelling evidence that high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol – “THC” – found in marijuana can alter brain size, structure, and function. These changes are especially profound among regular users. The amount of damage is directly proportional to age of first use, frequency of use, and the potency of the marijuana used.

The Long-Term Consequences

Adolescence is a critical period, with increased risk for cannabis and, in particular, high (THC) potency cannabis use. This may represent a public health crisis.”

~ Dr. Christopher J. Hammond, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins 

Marijuana is the most-used illegal substance by American youth, and every year, millions of teenagers try it for the first time. Not surprisingly, over 75% of adolescent admissions to substance abuse rehabilitation programs are specifically for marijuana.

The human brain continues to mature until the mid-20s, which means adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the psychologically-damaging effects of marijuana:

  • Chronic cannabis use interferes with normal cognitive development.
  • Lowered IQ – Adolescents who smoke marijuana before they turn 18 suffer a permanent average loss of 8 IQ points.
  • Memory Problems – Daily use changes the shape of the brain’s hippocampus, resulting in 18% poorer scores on memory tests.
  • Mental illness – Regular marijuana use increases the risk of schizophrenia and DOUBLES the risk of psychosis.
  • Aggression and Violence – Marijuana use is associated with a SEVENFOLD increase in the likelihood that the person will commit a violent crime.
  • Greater Risk of Addiction – Underage teens who use marijuana are 4 to 7 times more likely to develop Cannabis Use Disorder.
  • Marijuana is associated with worsened mental health, including higher rates of anxiety and depression.
  • Anxiety Disorder – Compared to their peers who do not use marijuana, teens who smoke the drug regularly until their early 20s are 3 times more likely to subsequently develop an anxiety disorder.
  • Depression – A 16-year study found that non-depressed teens who smoke marijuana frequently are 4 times more likely to be depressed at a follow-up evaluation.
  • Of special relevance, Marijuana-smoking teens with mood disorders are at greater than tripled risk of self-harm and 59% more likely to die of any cause.

Dr. Hammond says, “There appears to be a relatively consistent pattern of findings showing that adolescent cannabis use is associated in a dose-dependent manner with poor outcomes in academic and occupational functioning, cognition, and psychiatric and substance use outcomes, and that these may be worse for young people with mental health problems.” 

Not Your Parents’ Pot

There is no doubt that high-potency cannabis, such as skunk, causes more problems than traditional cannabis, or hash. This is the case for dependence, but especially for psychosis…we could prevent almost one-quarter of cases of psychosis if no one smoked high-potency cannabis.”

~ Sir Robin Murray, Professor of Psychiatric Research, King’s College, London

Researchers who work with colleges often hear young people say things like marijuana is “natural”, “safe“, or most often, that it’s “just weed…no big deal”, but a growing body of evidence, including recent research from the University of Washington, says that weed may be a very big deal indeed.

This is especially true with the super-potent cannabis products that are now increasingly available. Most college students — in fact, most Americans — do not realize the average THC content found in marijuana samples has increased dramatically within the last generation.

According to recent research, the average potency of marijuana found in dispensaries is approximately eight times stronger than what was available on the street a generation or two ago.

Even worse, most dispensaries also sell specialty products such as oils, waxes, and concentrates that may contain up to 99% THC.

In other words, this isn’t your parents’ pot.

John Schulenberg, with the Monitoring the Future study, says, “Daily marijuana use is a clear health risk. The brain is still developing in the early 20s, and as the Surgeon General and others have reported, the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health.

Impaired Academic Performance

We found that the more frequently students started using (marijuana), the greater their risk of poor school performance and engagement.”

~ Dr. Karen Patte, PhD, Associate Professor of Health Sciences, Brock University

Because adolescents and young adults are of the age to be in either high school or college, it is also important to consider the impact that marijuana has on their academic performance. 

Published research has consistently shown that the more frequently a student uses marijuana:

The most direct negative impact to academic performance is the link between marijuana use and impaired memory, decreased attention, and lowered I.Q,

Encouragingly,  studies of individuals abstaining from marijuana found that when use stops, cognitive performance does improveafter 28 days of abstinence.

Even a Little Weed Makes a BIG Difference

Most people would likely assume that one or two joints would have no impact on the brain…Consuming just one or two joints seems to change gray matter volumes in these young adolescents.”

~ Dr. Hugh Garavan, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Vermont

While there is a growing mountain of research clearly demonstrating the negative consequences that chronic marijuana use has on the still-developing young brain, an ongoing study seeks to help scientists learn more about the harmful effects of first-time use.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is currently being held at 21 separate research facilities throughout the country. Nearly 12,000 children are being tracked for 10 years, starting at ages 9 or 10.  This makes it the largest long-term study of brain development and adolescent health in America.

Every 2 years, scientists will:

  • Take MRI scans of participants’ brains
  • Take saliva and other such biospecimen samples for genetic analysis
  • Conduct in-depth interviews
  • Administer cognitive tests

Every three to six months after testing, additional follow-up will be scheduled on an as-needed basis. Changes in behavior, cognitive development, or brain structure will be recorded and tracked. Over the course of the study, the goal is to create a “map” that is shaped by personal behaviors such as substance use, family genetic history, and peer pressure.

This collaboration is funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Cancer Institute and aims to determine if marijuana use is merely an indicator that the person is particularly vulnerable for future substance abuse or if it is in fact a causal factor in subsequent addiction.

About the ABCD study, Dr. Vokow says, Since the participants are now in their vulnerable middle school years or are beginning high school, this is a critical time to learn more about what enhances or disrupts a young person’s life trajectory.”

The Gateway to Addiction

Pretty much everyone who ends up having a problem with substance use started as a teenager and continued use as a young adult.”

~ Dr. Maria Rahmandar

Marijuana has been described by many recovery experts as a “gateway drug,” in that recreational use increases the risk that users will subsequently go on to abuse stronger or illegal substances as they continue to seek a more powerful high.

Consider the following:

  • Marijuana smokers are 5 times more likely to develop a drinking problem.
  • They are also up to two-and-a-half times more likely to abuse prescription opioid painkillers.
  • This is extremely significant because 80% of people in treatment for heroin addiction admit that they started out by abusing pain medications.
  • People who use gateway substances such as marijuana have a risk of cocaine use that is 323 times higher than those who do not use such substances.
  • People in recovery from Substance Use Disorder who continue to use marijuana relapse at a rate that is 5 times that of those who abstain.

Dr. Efrat Aharonovich, PhD, who was the lead investigator for a study linking the drug with high rates of relapse, said, “I believe that our study indicates that marijuana is not as harmless as one would like to think.”

Is Marijuana Legalization to Blame?

Certainly the consumption of marijuana has been going up across all of the country, and it has been driven by the legislation.”

~ Dr. Nora Volkow

Some studies have found that cannabis use has increased in the U.S. states that have legalized it.

For example, a major study discovered that the percentage of American adults aged 26 and over who report using cannabis within the last month went up slightly from about 6% to 7% in states that had legalized recreational use. 

However, the spike is much more dramatic among young people. In states where recreational marijuana is legal, adolescents ages 12 to 17 reported a 25% higher increase than in states without legalized cannabis.

Most significant of all, adolescents in legalized states are at increased risk of developing Cannabis Use Disorder. Young adults, on the other hand, are less likely to seek treatment, even when struggling with CUD.

Smaller studies have reached similar conclusions. A Canadian study determined that cannabis use increased even among people who were not cannabis users prior to legalization.

Skyrocketing marijuana use among young people is not an accident. It is a deliberate marketing strategy by the cannabis industry. Dr. LaTisha Bader, PhD, the Clinical Director for a Denver-area recovery program explains:

“…this industry is using every profiteering strategy they can. They have learned the best lessons from the alcohol industry by targeting demographics of culture, to the duplicity of Big Tobacco testifying to its innocuous existence. If you read any basic business article reflecting how to attract and retain customers, the key is to….entice new users, to make recreational users regular users, and keep regular users loyal.”

The Bottom Line about Young People and Marijuana

Cannabis is the most prevalent drug used by the under-18s, and during this critical period of development, services should be especially aware of and responsive to the problems that cannabis use can cause for adolescent populations.”

~ Dr. Steven Marwaha, PhD, University of Birmingham

The data doesn’t lie. This at once is both a serious public health concern and a sobering reminder of the consequences of cannabis legalization. Marijuana is not harmless, and it is a serious mistake to make it even more available than it already is. Unfortunately, the people who suffer the most for that mistake are the ones most vulnerable to the drug’s harmful effects – teenagers and young adults.

So the question before us is less one of IF we should do something and more one of WHAT we can and should do. 

It starts with spreading awareness of the truth about the harms associated with marijuana, countering anecdotal misinformation with science and evidence from reputable sources and experts. Sharing this and similar articles will help accomplish that.

Next, talk with your family and friends, especially young people. The level of misconception about how safe marijuana really is is staggeringly high. Most young adults and teens do not perceive that marijuana is harmful at all.  This is dangerously ironic, since they are the most vulnerable group of users.

Finally, utilize the power of your vote, and encourage others to do the same. Marijuana legalization is a hot button during the election cycle, and voting is the best way to make your voice heard.

Use and share this infographic.


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