A Letter From Washington State
I am emailing from Seattle, Washington. As many of you may know, in November Washingtonians will vote on an initiative that would legalize and regulate marijuana for adults. A few years ago, I probably would have voted to legalize marijuana. But since I started working in my community to prevent underage drinking I have changed my mind.
When I first started working as a coalition coordinator, one of my personal goals was to convince the prevention community that legalizing and regulating marijuana, like we regulate alcohol, would reduce youth marijuana use. So that I could back up my argument with data, I started doing my own research into the subject. Instead of backing up my original argument, what I found (using my critical thinking skills) made me change my mind. I am against marijuana legalization because treating marijuana like alcohol will increase youth marijuana use.
Here is a summary of the reasons I changed my mind.
A New For-Profit Industry
If this initiative in Washington is approved, a whole new marijuana industry will be formed that is similar to the alcohol and tobacco industries. The state will license growers, manufacturers, and retailers. Legal products will include marijuana and marijuana-infused products such as cookies, candy, and beverages.
I don’t know what it’s like in other states, but here in Washington youth substance abuse prevention advocates battle year in and year out to maintain and/or strengthen alcohol regulations that are proven to reduce underage drinking. Every year we run into stiff opposition from the alcohol industry and we often lose. The same would end up being true with a marijuana industry. Year in and year out we will be fighting for tighter control of marijuana advertising targeting youth, restrictions on where marijuana advertisements can appear, taxes on marijuana, money for the enforcement of laws meant to kept marijuana out of the hands of minors, restrictions on marijuana outlet density, and multiple other related issues.
Access vs. Use
According to the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, while 10th graders report that alcohol and marijuana are equally accessible, they use legal and regulated alcohol at higher rates. The recent results from a CASA Columbia survey show that even when kids know of a peer who sells marijuana, they use legal alcohol at higher rates. Another national study shows that the majority of teenagers who do not use marijuana say that one reason they do not is because it is illegal.* Legalizing marijuana will make its use more acceptable among adults and, therefore, more acceptable among teens.
Decreased perception of risk equals increase in use.
When drugs are illegal, youth perceive them to be risky. The prevalence of adolescent marijuana use is inversely proportional to the perceived risk associated with use. Since 2002, the perception of risk associated with marijuana use has decreased significantly. This coincides with a significant increase in marijuana use across the United States. (SAMHSA, 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health) Legalizing marijuana would decrease perceptions of risk even further, resulting in an increase in use.
Concerns Among Pediatricians
In their paper, “Marijuana Legalization: Potential Impact on Youth”, the American Academy of Pediatrics cites the following as some of their concerns:
· Marijuana use among parents will increase which will, in turn, increase youth access to marijuana in the home. As we know with alcohol, many kids get it from their homes either with or without their parent’s permission.
· A marijuana industry would act no differently than the alcohol and tobacco industries and eventually market marijuana to youth.
· Legalization of marijuana for adults but not for adolescents would necessitate additional law enforcement burdens on a system that currently is not meetings its regulatory obligations.
Illegal Market Continues
Legalizing marijuana would not rid our communities of drug trafficking organizations. An illegal market will still exist for adolescents. Drug trafficking organizations are diversified and sell other drugs, such as cocaine and meth. They will just refocus their efforts to sell other drugs to adults.
Marijuana is Harmful to Adolescent Development
The recent study about regular adolescent marijuana use and the negative impact on brain development adds to the multiple studies that show the negative health impacts of adolescent marijuana use. In Washington, though alcohol is the primary drug used by teenagers, marijuana is (by far) the primary reason they enter treatment. Marijuana affects youth differently than it affects adults and this fact needs to take up a larger part of our discussion about drug policy than it currently does.
Public Health Issue
I believe marijuana use should be treated as a public health problem and we do not need to legalize it to do so. We can advocate for evidence-based public health services now. We can advocate for drug courts. We can advocate for universal prevention programs. We can advocate for the enforcement of policies that are can keep marijuana out of the hands of kids. There are so many things that we can do to create healthy communities that support positive youth development and legalizing a drug that is harmful to young people is not one of them. ——————-
*Johnson, L.D., O’Malley, P.M., Bachman, J.G. & Schulenberg, J.E. Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 2010, Volume 1: Secondary school students, Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.
Prevention WINS Coordinator | Adolescent Medicine
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