Drug Policy

Does Punishing Pot Smokers Save the Children?


A new report from the Marijuana Policy Project, tied to the expected release this week of the latest numbers from the Monitoring the Future Study of drug use by students, concludes that "marijuana prohibition has not curbed marijuana use by young people." I think this may overstate what the evidence shows, but various kinds of data reviewed in the report do indicate that variations in drug policy have little or no impact on pot smoking by teenagers:

1) The number of marijuana arrests in the U.S. has risen dramatically since the early 1990s, but reported availability of marijuana among high school seniors has remained more or less flat (with about 85 percent saying pot is "easy to get").

2) States that have "decriminalized" marijuana possession (which in the U.S. generally has meant replacing criminal penalties with modest fines) do not have significantly higher rates of adolescent marijuana use. This is true of Australia as well as the U.S.

3) The Netherlands did not see an increase in teenage marijuana use for years after it started allowing the open sale of cannabis by "coffeeshops" in 1976, and even today the rate there is substantially lower than in the U.S. according to most surveys (about the same according to one).

4) Since Britain essentially stopped arresting people for marijuana possession in 2004, pot smoking among 16-to-19-year-olds has dropped.

5) Marijuana use in the U.S. is much more common today than it was prior to the federal ban on marijuana in 1937.

The last point, which is based on retrospective data from surveys that asked Americans how old they were when they first tried marijuana, is probably the weakest, if it is meant to support the conclusion that "marijuana prohibition has not curbed marijuana use by young people." Leaving aside possible problems with the data, drug warriors can always argue that marijuana use would have risen even more without prohibition. "During the era of marijuana prohibition," MPP estimates, "use of marijuana by Americans under 35 (who have traditionally been the largest proportion of users) increased by more than 4,000%." That sounds like impressive evidence of prohibition's failure, and MPP suggests that the "forbidden fruit" effect, plus reaction against anti-drug propaganda, may have made teenagers more likely to smoke pot than they would have been had marijuana remained legal.

Since the 1930s, the U.S. has gone from a situation where smoking cannabis as an intoxicant was virtually unknown (some legislators who voted for the ban had never even heard of the drug) to one where, according to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 40 percent of Americans 12 or older have tried marijuana. But only 6 percent of the respondents in that survey said they'd used cannabis in the previous month, compared to more than 50 percent who said they'd consumed alcohol. Without prohibition, maybe the rate of past-month marijuana use would be closer to the rate of past-month drinking, among teenagers as well as adults. That possibility obviously cannot be addressed with historical data.

Still, the comparisons across states, across countries, and across shorter periods of time in the U.S. (looking at variations in drug law enforcement, as opposed to the impact of prohibition itself) make a pretty compelling case that significant changes in marijuana policy do not have a noticeable effect on marijuana use by teenagers. When drug warriors oppose liberalization of marijuana laws in the name of protecting children, they should not benefit from a presumption that marijuana use by teenagers will rise if the government is more tolerant of adult pot smokers.


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  1. Jacob, I love the way that you are willing to tackle bad arguments made by people who agree with you. As a scientist, that sort of even-handed skepticism warms my heart.

    Seriously, after staying up late last night to write a report demanding a bit more careful detail in a research article on a subject that is near and dear to my heart (I was the reviewer), this is the sort of writing that I love to see:

    “That possibility obviously cannot be addressed with historical data.”

    “I think this may overstate what the evidence shows…”

    “The last point, which is based on retrospective data…is probably the weakest…”

    Kudos to you!

  2. The first point may be useless simply because different generations can have different standards of “easy to get”, to say nothing of the timeless teenage attitude towards meaningless surveys.

    I agree with thoreau, though. It’s this kind of meticulous, relentless logic that makes Sullum’s book a masterpiece.

  3. I agree, thoreau. I loved Mr Sullum’s book, as well, and reccommend it to everyone.

    In fact, this is a thing I love about reason in general. They are not idealogues. It’s not about us vs them, it’s about truth vs fiction, and the relentless pursuit of reason over demagoguery.

    I love Sullum and Balko (especially for his Cory Maye advocacy), Cathy Young, Nick Gillespie, and Jesse Walker. They are all amazing.

    Best. Magazine. Ever.

    – R

  4. “Does Punishing Pot Smokers Save the Children?”

    It must. If it doesn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it; would we?

  5. I thimk we have got to “Stay The Course” with what we are doing. If we changed the laws then everyone, including toddlers wood be stoned all the time. Do you really want aerline pilots and surgeons stoned? The laws are they’er not because they are effective, but because it is wrong for everyone to be wasted and we have to make wrong things iligal, to “Send A Message” and so to speak.


  6. Obviously the laws are not strong enough. We have to show these dopers we mean business and if that means dragging a reefer addict into the street and shooting him on the spot, then so be it. It’s for thier own good.

  7. Juanita, given your inability to spell properly, might one assume that you could only have been high as a fucking kite when you wrote that post?

  8. Actually, it’s the other way around… you need to be stoned to spell a language as crazy as English correctly.

  9. Clearly the solution is to decriminalize marijuana, while making trans fat consumption a felony. Just because the drug wars don’t work doesn’t mean the fat wars can’t…right?

  10. The Netherlands did not see an increase in teenage marijuana use for years after it started allowing the open sale of cannabis by “coffeeshops” in 1976

    Careful there. The first coffeeshops opened in 1976 but they didn’t proliferate till the early 80s. The use rate does loosely correlate with the number of shops and has stabilised or decreased since the mid-90s when local muncipalities were given leeway over their presence (down from 1200+ to 700+ now).

  11. Good thing *Reason* is being somewhat skeptical. If there’s one reality which libertarians should acknowledge, it’s the fact that reducing the price of something will lead to more people buying it. If increasing the price of labor (for instance) will lead to less demand for labor, then reducing the price of dope ought to leaad for greater demand for dope.

    I’m referring to the monetaary price, which would probably go down if prohibition ended. There’s also the non-monetary price — such things as risk of arrest and civil forfeiture. Ending prohibition would end those things, too, but let’s just stick with the monetary price.

  12. Its simply really. People that believe in freewill and freedom in general will do what they want regardless of what the law says. Especially when there is no moral dilemma within themselves because they are not doing anything to harm others and they know it regardless of what the propaganda panderers have said through the decades. Its almost as if the longer the WoD folks talk bullshit and spout off the insane propaganda the more they show how out of touch they are with the facts. It also shows how wrong their own logic and so called facts put forth over time have been and the lerger general public is finally waking up to that fact.

    According to much of the bullshit they have said over the years the drug problem should have taken care of itself a long time ago since all drugs are death sentences to the users. Based on that should not all the users of drugs have already died or killed themselves by now?

  13. The bottome line on this stuff has always been the same: no one has the “right” to punish someone for what they choose to do directly to themselves alone. Laws cannot protect peopel from themselves — nothing can.

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