Marijuana use is becoming a new normal among young adults

Story at a glance

  • More than two-fifths of young men and women now use cannabis at least on occasion.

  • Young women are a big part of the growth as a gender gap on the use of marijuana closes.

  • Across the entire adult population, marijuana use may have hit an all-time high.

Cannabis users soon may be a majority among young adults in the District of Columbia and several pot-friendly states, a trend that points to a potential future of destigmatized marijuana across much of the nation.

More than two-fifths of young men and women nationwide now use cannabis at least on occasion, according to federal data, a quotient that has risen steadily in a decade of relentless legalization. Much of the trend is driven by young women, who have all but closed a decadeslong gender gap in marijuana use.

Young cannabis users outnumber abstainers in Vermont, where recreational marijuana became fully legal only this month. Young marijuana patrons are nearing majorities in Colorado, where cannabis has been legal for a decade, and in Washington, D.C., where the drug trades on a nebulous gray market. They are also reaching majority in Oregon, where recreational sales commenced five years ago.

“It really helps with sleep,” said Allison, 24, of Silver Spring, Md., one of five states with recreational cannabis measures on the fall ballot. She withheld her last name because the votes are not yet cast.

“It’s great for stress, anxiety,” she said. “And my generation has huge anxiety problems.”

Across the full adult population, marijuana use may stand at an all-time high. It’s hard to tell because, prior to the legalization movement, federal cannabis research focused largely on the young.

The share of all adults who said they had tried marijuana in their lifetimes reached 49 percent in 2021, the highest number measured in half a century of Gallup polling.

“In the next few years, we should see that crossing 50 percent,” said Lydia Saad, director of U.S. social research for Gallup.

When the polling organization first posed the question, in 1969, only 4 percent of adults said they had ever used cannabis.

Cannabis advocates rejoiced this month when President Biden announced he would pardon all Americans convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law.

As many as five more states are poised to join the recreational marijuana movement after the midterms. Recreational marijuana could transform cannabis culture in North and South Dakota and Arkansas, states where only 10 to 15 percent of adults use the drug now.

“Twenty-five years ago, people were telling me, ‘Kid, it’s not gonna happen in your lifetime,’” said Etienne Fontan, a cannabis activist and Gulf War veteran who runs the oldest dispensary in the nation, Berkeley Patients Group in Northern California.

Already, 19 states and the District of Columbia have recreational marijuana laws on the books. Should all five measures pass, “legalization would be the law for an estimated 49 percent of the U.S. population,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in an email interview.

Not everyone is celebrating. Health experts worry that rising cannabis use brings increased risk.

Marijuana is “about as addictive as alcohol,” said Christian Hopfer, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado. “I’ve had numerous patients who have really had trouble getting off it.”

With legalization, “we have seen more and more people consume high doses of marijuana,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Most cannabis consumers will be fine, but for a small share of users, ultra-potent recreational strains can trigger psychotic episodes.

“They can end up in the emergency department,” Volkow said.

For good or bad, the legalization movement has all but erased nearly a century of stigma against marijuana use.

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The very word, marijuana, has “a racist legacy behind it,” said Matt Reid, an assistant professor of sociology at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania. “When it was first made illegal in the 1930s, the stigma was geared toward other cultures, Mexican immigrants.”

Early efforts to curb cannabis portrayed users as “violent and murderous,” Reid said. Cold War anti-drug messaging taught that marijuana “makes you lazy and a dropout,” hurting our campaign against communism. At the height of Drug Abuse Resistance Education during the Reagan administration, public service announcements taught that marijuana fried the brain like an egg.

Today, corporate America is sweeping in to open dispensaries and promote an expanding menu of cannabis to eat, drink, smoke and vape. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra has staged marijuana-friendly concerts. In Canada, where recreational marijuana was illegal just four years ago, UberEats launched a cannabis delivery service on Monday.

“Pabst Beer has their own line of cannabis seltzers,” said Fontan, the cannabis advocate. “They’re in my dispensary right now.”

The surge in cannabis use spans nearly every age group but in gradually dwindling numbers. Cannabis consumption falls off from roughly 40 percent of the population at age 30 to around 15 percent at age 55, according to federal data.

Among the youngest adults, marijuana use has yet to approach its all-time peak in the late 1970s.

The high-water mark of young adult marijuana use arrived in 1979, when nearly 36 percent of Americans ages 18 to 25 said they had smoked pot in the prior month. Marijuana use declined dramatically in the 1980s, flattened out in the 1990s and rose fitfully through the 2000s and 2010s. By 2021, monthly cannabis consumption in the 18-to-25 age group had rebounded to roughly 30 percent.

Gallup polling finds stark divides among contemporary cannabis users. Adults with graduate degrees are one-third as likely to consume cannabis as those with a college degree or less. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to use marijuana. Liberals use cannabis at nearly four times the rate of conservatives.

Texas, one of a dwindling number of states where marijuana has no legal use, reports the lowest cannabis consumption in the nation. In 2019 and 2020, only 13 percent of Texas adults and 26 percent of young adults said they had used marijuana in the prior year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Men are almost twice as likely as women to use cannabis, according to Gallup polls. But the gender gap is narrowing. Among young adults, it has nearly closed.

Women are driving the steady rise in cannabis consumption among young adults nationwide. The marijuana gender gap peaked in 2010, according to federal data, when 34 percent of young men reported cannabis use, compared to only 23 percent of young women.

By 2020, monthly cannabis consumption in the 18-to-25 age group had rebounded to 23 percent.

Cannabis retailers target female consumers with marketing that promotes the product as a plant, rather than a drug, with holistic appeal and scant caloric consequences.

“Cannabis cooking — that has become its own thing,” said Stephanie Zellers, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Helsinki who has studied cannabis in the United States. “I’ve seen cooking competitions that involve choosing a strain of cannabis with a flavor profile that works with the food.”

Zellers and her collaborators published research this year that more or less proved adults are more likely to use cannabis in states with recreational sales, by a margin of about 20 percent. Researchers controlled for other variables by studying pairs of twins.

A separate study found a bump of roughly 25 percent in adult cannabis consumption when states legalize recreational use.

“We see the biggest increase once the dispensaries open,” said Alex Hollingsworth, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

“I look at my parents,” Hollingsworth said. “They’re not going to grow marijuana plants. But if it were in a store, where it was legal, they might do that.”

This story was updated at 9:09 a.m.

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