If Marijuana Legalization Sends the Wrong Message to Teenagers, Why Aren't They Listening?

Prohibitionists commonly
that it’s dangerous even to discuss legalizing marijuana,
whether for medical or general use, because such talk sends “the
wrong message” to the youth of America, encouraging them to smoke
pot. If so, you might expect that the legalization of marijuana in
Colorado and Washington, approved by voters more than a year ago,
would have a noticeable impact on marijuana use by teenagers. Yet
the latest
from the government-sponsored Monitoring the Future Study,
released today, indicate that teenagers observed the momentous
events in Colorado and Washington, absorbed the deleterious message
supposedly sent by legalization, and continued smoking pot at
pretty much the same rates as before.

Looking at annual,
and “daily
use (meaning use on 20 or more of the previous 30 days) among
eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, you can see there were some
slight increases and slight decreases, but none of the changes was
stastistically significant. “These findings should put to rest any
claims that reforming marijuana laws and discussing the benefits
will somehow contribute to more teens using marijuana,” says
Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana
Policy Project (MPP). “It’s time for prohibition supporters to stop
hiding behind teens when debating marijuana policy.”

Maybe not. Even though marijuana use among teenagers was
essentially flat in the most recent survey, USA
that “teens are shunning synthetic marijuana, such as K2 and Spice,
but smoking more of the real thing”—I guess because that sounded
good. “Young people are getting the wrong message from the medical
marijuana and legalization campaigns,” drug czar Gil Kerlikowske
says in the USA Today story. “If it’s continued to be
talked about as a benign substance that has no ill effects, we’re
doing a great disservice to young people by giving them that

You have to give Kerlikowske credit (if that’s the right word)
for being completely undaunted by contrary evidence. It is true
that marijuana use among teenagers has been “drifting higher in
recent years” (as the University of Michigan researchers who
oversee the Monitoring the Future Study
put it
). But this upward
began around 2007, whereas the first medical marijuana
law (California’s) was enacted in 1996. In between, past-month use
among high school seniors went up and down, but it did not exceed
the 1996 rate until 2011, 15 years after cannabis was first
legalized for medical use. It certainly does not look like
marijuana reform is driving increases in adolescent pot smoking. If
you dig a little deeper, comparing cannabis consumption trends in
states with and without medical marijuana laws, there is
little evidence
that such legislation boosts pot smoking by

A press release from the anti-pot group Project SAM notes with
alarm that “one-third of high school seniors living in medical
marijuana states obtained their marijuana from someone else’s
medical recommendation.” That’s not terribly surprising, given that

70 percent
of people who use narcotic painkillers for
nonmedical purposes report that they got the pills from a relative
or friend with a prescription. That does not mean the government
should ban the medical use of narcotics. In any case, the relevant
question is whether this sort of diversion increases overall
marijuana use among teenagers. If it did, there should be
discernible differences in underage consumption trends between
states that allow medical use and states that don’t. So far there

The potential for diversion to minors will be greater, of
course, in states where pot buyers do not need a doctor’s note. At
the same time, it will become more difficult for minors to purchase
marijuana directly as state-licensed stores replace black-market
dealers (assuming that transition is not
by excessive taxation and regulation). On balance,
teenagers probably will find that pot is somewhat easier to obtain,
just as alcohol is currently easier for them to obtain (although
harder to buy from a retailer) than marijuana. I would
therefore not be surprised if legalization is accompanied by an
increase in marijuana consumption by teenagers, although not
because of the message it sends so much as the increased access it

No doubt prohibitionists like Kerlikowske will cite any such
increase as evidence that they were right all along. But logically
speaking, the potential for diversion to minors does not count as
an argument for criminalizing the production, sale, and use of
marijuana any more than it counts as an argument for criminalizing
the production, sale, and use of alcoholic beverages. And just as
with adults, there is potential here for
harm reduction
if more pot smoking means less drinking.

Drinking, by the way, has been declining
among teenagers since 1997, and cigarette
is less than half as common among high school seniors
today as it was in 1976 (a downward trend than continued this year,
despite the “gateway” threat
allegedly posed
by electronic cigarettes). So even if
legalization of marijuana is followed by a short-term increase in
pot smoking by teenagers, prohibition clearly is not necessary to
address the problem of underage consumption. In fact, prohibition
makes it harder to distinguish between adults and minors by handing
over the business to retailers who never bother to card their
customers. Citing the steady declines in underage alcohol and
tobacco consumption, the MPP’s Tvert argues that “regulation
clearly works and prohibition has clearly failed when it comes to
protecting teens.”

from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/12/18/if-marijuana-legalization-sends-the-wron

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