SEATTLE — Officially, it becomes legal today — and even then you’ll be breaking the law if you buy it on the street.
But marijuana is so readily available near Washington college campuses that researchers and students alike are debating just how much Initiative 502 may affect use among young adults — already the most frequent users of pot.
Some researchers think more young adults will light up when the drug is no longer legally forbidden to those 21 and older. But students say it’s so easy to buy pot in college that anybody who wants to smoke is already doing so.
One-third of Washington’s young adults ages 18 to 25 have used marijuana in the past year, according to a national study. They’re almost three times more likely than the general population to have used pot in the last year.
An increase in use among young adults “really is hard to predict since we have not had a precedent like this," said Jason Kilmer, assistant director of health and wellness for alcohol and drug education at the University of Washington and a research assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
Washington colleges and universities have been quick to emphasize that pot is still not welcome on campus, no matter what the new state law says. Institutions that receive federal money must keep a drug-free campus, in accordance with federal law that makes pot illegal. And a student caught with marijuana can be subject to disciplinary action.
One researcher who thinks use will increase is Roger Roffman, a principal supporter of I-502 and a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who has studied marijuana use and dependency for nearly 30 years.
“Here’s my guess: Over the next years, we will see greater curiosity about marijuana, among those particularly in that (young adult) age range," Roffman said. “Curiosity will lead more people to use it who otherwise wouldn’t have."
One federal study also hints at a possible uptick in use among young adults when marijuana becomes legal. In “Monitoring the Future," a national survey that has been taking the pulse of student drug use since 1975, high school seniors were asked how legalization would affect their attitude toward the drug.
In the 2011 survey, 17 percent of all high-school seniors — about one in six — thought they would try marijuana, or their use would increase, if marijuana were legalized.
Kilmer said that research on alcohol use has shown that increased access and availability are linked to increased use. “We need to see if that will hold true with marijuana," he said. “That’s a really good research question."