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Marijuana Legalization Has Nothing to Do with Teenagers

 I agree with Randy Shelden 99% of the time and respect his views, but I argue his blog  on Proposition 19, as well as other commentaries such as the Media Awareness Project's, are dead wrong in both facts and emphasis. Those who want to reform destructive drug policies should not join drug warriors in obsessing over the unimportant issue of how many teenagers smoke pot.

Shelden argues that under the current marijuana criminalization, "according to several studies, currently it is easier for those under 18 to obtain pot than it is to get alcohol." This argument has been raised by several drug reform lobbies in recent years to advance the claim that legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults would make the drug harder for teens to get. This claim is entirely specious. It rests solely on one "study" by arch anti-drug warrior Joseph Califano's ever-unreliable Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

Califano's one-time poll of 1,000 teens (his "polls" suffer severe method flaws) is contradicted by every other study of the subject, including 35 years of solid surveys of hundreds of thousands of high school students by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research's Monitoring the Future. The latest, 2009 MTF survey (see trends in availability) is typical of every other year, age group, and survey. It shows high school students find the following drugs "fairly easy or very easy to get:"

8th graders:  marijuana, 40%; cigarettes, 55%; alcohol 62% 
10th graders:  marijuana, 69%; cigarettes, 76%; alcohol, 81%
12th graders:  marijuana, 81%; cigarettes (not surveyed); alcohol, 92%

For all youths, especially younger ones, legal drugs are far easier to get than illegal ones, and youths use legal drugs far more than illegal ones. For example Shelden cites a federal report showing that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug. True, but that same report shows legal drugs are used even more. For age 12-17 in the past month, 3.3 million used marijuana, 3.7 million used cigarettes, and 7.5 million drank alcohol.
 
Now, is the fact that youths find legal drugs easier to get and use them more, than illegal ones a legitimate argument against marijuana legalization measures? Absolutely not. True reform demands that reformers confront, not go along with, drug warriors "save our children!" demagogueries.

First, the most important dynamic is not that the legality of a drug makes it more likely to be popular, but that the popularity of a drug (particularly among "respectable" populations) makes it more likely to be legal. Alcohol and cigarettes, historically and today, are more popular among both adults and youths than marijuana, and marijuana is more popular than other illicit drugs. That's why alcohol and tobacco are legal and marijuana is the illicit drug most likely to be legalized.

Second, whether a teenager can get a drug depends solely on whether he/she wants it, not the legal regime. Any youth who can't get marijuana or alcohol within a few hours of wanting them is IQ challenged, not legally protected.

Third, the numbers of youths using alcohol or cigarettes are direct functions of the numbers of adults around them who do so. The only societies in which teens abstain are ones in which adults abstain.

Legalization of marijuana for adults might lead to increases, probably modest, in both adult and teenage use. Evidence is spotty. In The Netherlands, marijuana went from being an almost-never-used drug before the 1990s proliferation of coffee shops dispensing marijuana to those age 18 and older to a rarely-used drug among both adults and youths afterward, with recent declines  among all ages. Likewise, criminalization has not prevented periodic ups and downs in marijuana use in the United States at generally higher levels than found in The Netherlands.

While marijuana is harmful to a small percentage of users, there's no particular reason to fear modest fluctuations in its use by either teenagers or adults. I've never understood how those who argue with good evidence that arresting adults for marijuana is harmful could continue to accept arresting teens for pot. Fortunately, California's reforms have reduced simple pot possession to a mere infraction for all ages.

Meaningful drug policy reform requires brutally honest examination of the implications of various policy alternatives, an endeavor tirelessly senseless voices like Califano's do not inform. Califano, the drug czar, and other opponents of legalization want to use false information to make the issue teenagers. Let's stop helping them do that.

Keywords: crime trends, marijuana, Mike Males, Proposition 19, youth

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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