Has The Rate of U.S. Marijuana Use Really Doubled?

Via: Ryan M. Bolton | Shutterstock


by Paul Armentano

on October 29, 2015

The number of Americans consuming marijuana has doubled over the past decade. Or so it is claimed many in the mainstream media. But to those of us who have closely followed survey data over the past decade, last week’s sensational claim immediately aroused suspicion. Why? That is because the bulk of the available data clearly says otherwise.

The most prominent and well-respected gauge of Americans’ drug use habits is the annual survey conducted by the U.S. federal government, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Yet data assessed by the NSDUH over the past decade disputes claims of a doubling in marijuana use prevalence. Rather, the NSDUH reports a fairly nominal increase in cannabis consumption by those 18 years or older between the years 2002 and 2012. Among young people age 12 to 17, the NSDUH reports a decrease  in cannabis consumption — a conclusion consistent with those of other reviews, such as this one here, and this one here, and this one here, finding that relaxing state marijuana policy has not triggered an uptick in young people’s pot use.

Source: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FRR1-2014/NSDUH-FRR1-2014.pdf

Source: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FRR1-2014/NSDUH-FRR1-2014.pdf

But while these facts should have been readily known by reporters — after all, the NSDUH data, among others, were duly noted by the authors of the very paper that inspired last week’s screaming headlines — they went largely unacknowledged in the media’s coverage. Fortunately, some reporters were appropriately skeptical regarding the researchers’ separate, equally sensational claim that incidences of so-called ‘cannabis use disorder’ were also on the rise. They should have been.

In a political environment where illicit cannabis use is, by definition, often equated by government researchers as ‘abuse,’ and where a pot-related arrest often results in a stint in a substance abuse ‘treatment’ facility, it is not hard to see why any acknowledgment of repeated cannabis use would be classified as a disorder, regardless of whether said use is objectively problematic or not. Further muddying the waters is the researchers’ view that one’s mere acknowledgement of having ever experienced marijuana-related legal troubles is prima facie evidence of the disorder — a criteria that would automatically brand nearly 10 million Americans over the past decade not as sufferers of an archaic and overly punitive public policy, but rather as sufferers of a disease.

Ultimately, however, such scare tactics seem to hold little sway these days with the electorate. Despite such ‘shock’ claims, and despite a moderate uptick in cannabis use prevalence among adults over the past decade and a half, Americans of all ages are more likely than ever to express support for legalizing pot and doing away with prohibition.


Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML — the National Organization for the reform of Marijuana Laws — and also serves as a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf, Inc. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013) and the author of the new book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws (Whitman Press/Reset.Me, 2015).