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


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Prohibitionists commonly warn 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 data 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, past-month, 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 Today reports 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 message."

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 drift 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 teenagers.

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 aren't.

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 impeded 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 brings.

No doubt prohibitionists like Kerlikowske will cite any such increase as evidence that they were right all along. But logically speaking, the possibility of 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 smoking 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."