Pot and Cigarettes Are Now Equally Popular (Among Teenagers)


The latest data from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System indicate that the percentage of teenagers who smoke marijuana is essentially the same as the percentage who smoke cigarettes. In the 2007 survey, 19.7 percent percent of high school students reported smoking marijuana at least once in the previous month, while 20 percent said they'd smoked at least one cigarette. The Marijuana Policy Project notes that tobacco smoking is declining faster among teenagers than marijuana smoking:

The cigarette use figure represents a sharp drop from the 2005 survey, when it was 23 percent. Marijuana use, at 20.2 percent in 2005, showed a much smaller decline….

Another report released this week, the Fiscal Year 2007 Annual Synar Report on tobacco sales to youth, showed the 10th straight annual decline in the rate of illegal tobacco sales to minors. In 1997, 40.1 percent of retailers violated laws against tobacco sales to minors. In 2007 the rate had dropped to just 10.5 percent, the lowest ever.

"Efforts to curb cigarette sales to teens have been wildly successful, and it's past time we applied those lessons to marijuana," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "Tobacco retailers can be fined or put out of business if they sell to kids, but prohibition guarantees that we have zero control over marijuana dealers. Foolish policies have guaranteed that the marijuana industry is completely unregulated."

This is true enough, and I've often made a similar argument. But honest opponents of prohibition have to admit that leakage from the adult market for any legal intoxicant is inevitable. Note that the rate for past-month alcohol consumption in the same survey was 45 percent, making it more than twice as common among teenagers as pot smoking. (That's up from 43 percent in 2005 but the same as in 2003.) To project the impact that repealing prohibition would have on underage pot smoking, you need to weigh the effect of regulation against the effect of easier, safer, and cheaper availability to adults.

Then there's the question of how much weight should be attached to the risk of increased consumption by minors. To me, underage cigarette smoking is more troubling (legal issues aside) than underage drinking or pot smoking, because it is much more likely to result in a long-term habit that has serious health consequences. Others, focusing on the immediate psychoactive effects and the associated risk of reckless behavior or academic disruption, may worry more about alcohol and pot.

I am not conceding, by the way, that a utilitarian analysis like this one is the right way to find the ideal drug policy. If adults have a fundamental right to control their bodies and the chemicals that go into them, the possibility that some may deliberately or accidentally share those chemicals with minors does not justify violating that right. But most Americans do not accept that premise, so predictions about how repealing prohibition would affect The Children are unavoidable.