How Worried Should We Be About Minors and Legal Pot?

In states with newly relaxed marijuana laws, it's difficult to see teen use not going up at least a little bit.

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REUTERS

If any one group could slow down the liberalization of marijuana laws across the U.S., it's teenagers. Unlike with the chronically ill or even healthy adults, the use of marijuana among teenagers is considered bad even if it isn't accompanied by some other bad thing. A teenager doesn't need to smoke pot and get in a car accident, smoke pot and drop out of school, smoke pot and develop mental health problems, or smoke pot and get addicted. A teen just has to smoke pot, and our society sees a problem. 

At this point in our history, the same is true for tobacco, of course. And even though some parents are OK with older teens having sex or engaging in underage drinking ("Better she learn her limits now before heading off to college" is a popular refrain among a certain demographic), our public institutions generally discourage both. Legal recreational marijuana, meanwhile, is nascent, and anti-marijuana advocates believe an inevitable increase in teen use is the best way kill legal pot in the crib. 

Consider the list of provisions anti-marijuana advocates, organized by National Families in Action, came up with after meeting in Atlanta in 2013: 

1. a complete ban on advertising 
2. a penalty fee on the marijuana industry for every underage user
3. automatic repeal of legalization if underage use exceeds 2012 levels (but a tax break if it dips below them)
4. no marijuana product placements, sponsorships, point-of-purchase marketing, or depictions in entertainment venues
5. an industry-financed fund to pay for treating marijuana addiction, injuries, and health problems, so taxpayers won't have to pick up the tab
6. a state agency to tax and regulate the marijuana industry, including marijuana purity and potency
7. licensed growers, distributors, and retail stores that sell only marijuana and nothing else
8. until science establishes a level indicating marijuana impairment, a ban on driving with any marijuana in the systems of drivers or passengers
9. a ban on people coming to work or school with marijuana in their systems
10. no marijuana smoking where tobacco smoking is banned
11. marijuana controlled by the Food and Drug Administration like tobacco is now, and 
12. a Surgeon General's report on the impact of marijuana on health and well-being.

Items 1-4 are explicitly aimed at underage users, and several of the other items are aimed at reducing teenage exposure to adults who use marijuana. Anti-legalization opponents anticipate the marijuana industry growing so large that it has to market to teens in order to guarantee a continuous demand for its products over long periods of time (this is what the tobacco and alcohol industries have done). This fear undermines the current fight in Colorado over marijuana advertising, and last year's fight in Portland, Maine, over pro-legalization referendum ads. The issue is also on the DOJ's radar; when the department released the list of offenses it would prosecute in Colorado and Washington, selling pot to minors sat right at the top. 

Indeed, in states and cities with newly relaxed marijuana laws, it's difficult to see teen use not going up at least a little bit—at least initially. In recent year, teenagers have come to see marijuana as less risky, likely because they now know there's a large population of adults who use it and are advocating for its legalization. And a survey released earlier this week found that high school seniors who are currently at low risk of drug use would try marijuana if it became legal.

Whether you believe that teenage marijuana use is bad, period, or bad because it can hurt developing teenage brains (in much the same way trans fats apparently do), the fact that teenage attitudes about the drug are changing doesn't have to mean that legalization is a failure, or that we should double-down on prosecuting marijuana users. The Denver Post, which has gone all-in with a new section dedicated to covering Colorado's weed economy, has a great primer for parents on how to talk to their kids about pot. Not surprisingly, the same line of reasoning that works with alcohol and tobacco—there are health consequences, just because other people are doing it doesn't mean you should—applies to marijuana. The idea here is that open and honest education about the risks of marijuana is smarter than banning the stuff. After all, teens in all 50 states currently use marijuana, even though it's illegal for anyone of any age to use the stuff in 48 of them.

Top image: Anti-legalization advocates often point to marijuana-infused food stuffs as products designed to appeal to minors. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

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