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Legalizing pot may reduce stigma

States that have legalized recreational marijuana use may be sending a message to teens that pot is not harmful to their health. In a new survey analysis of teenagers in Washington and Colorado, fewer of them perceived marijuana as risky following approval of recreational use by voters in those states.

Perceptions of marijuana’s harmfulness decreased most dramatically in Washington following legalization, falling by 14 percent and 16 percent among eighth and 10th graders, respectively.

More Washington teens in both groups also said they had used marijuana following legalization there.

“With legalization, marijuana use became less stigmatized and adolescents were more likely to use it,” said study author Magdalena Cerda, an epidemiologist with the University of California, Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.

The effects of legalization on teens’ attitudes and behavior were less dramatic in Colorado,

Where the perception of the drug’s harmful effects fell by about 3 percent for eighth graders and 11 percent for 10th graders, according to the survey. Reported pot use did not change among Colorado eighth graders, with about 9 percent saying they’d used marijuana within the past month, and its use actually declined among 10th graders.

“[In Colorado] there was a more robust commercialization effort around medical marijuana prior to recreational marijuana being legalized,” Cerda said. “That might have contributed to the fact that even before marijuana was legalized, the use was already quite high and the perceived harm was quite low.”

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse funds the annual survey, which questions teenagers nationwide about their behaviors, attitudes and values. Nearly 254,000 Colorado and Washington state students participated. The findings were published online Dec. 27 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Notably, in states where marijuana has not been legalized, its use decreased by about 1 percent among both eighth and 10th graders during the same period, the researchers said.

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