Background: In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize recreational cannabis, instituting a non-commercial state regulatory model of production and supply. This study provides the first empirical evidence on its impacts on adolescent use of cannabis and related risks.
Methods: We use a generalization of the synthetic control method (SCM) to estimate the impact of legalization in Uruguay on adolescent past year and month cannabis use, perceived availability of cannabis and perceived risk of cannabis use. We compare biennial high school student self-reported survey data from Montevideo and regions in the interior of Uruguay post-legalization (2014-2018) and post initial implementation (2015-2018) to a synthetic counterfactual constructed using a weighted combination of 15 control regions in Chile.
Results: We find no evidence of an impact on cannabis use or the perceived risk of use. We find an increase in student perception of cannabis availability (58% observed vs. 51% synthetic control) following legalization.
Conclusion: Our findings provide some support for the thesis that Uruguay's state regulatory approach to cannabis supply may minimize the impact of legalization on adolescent cannabis use. At the same time, our study period represents a period of transition: pharmacy access, by far the most popular means of access, was not available until the summer of 2017. Additional study will be important to assess the longer-term impacts of the fully implemented legalization regime on substance use outcomes.
Keywords: Adolescent substance use; Cannabis; Drug policy; Legalization; Synthetic control.
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