By Paul Armentano
The federal government appears incapable of telling the truth when it comes to marijuana or marijuana policy. The Drug Czar’s latest lie: that the increasing public discourse acknowledging the inherent failures of pot prohibition is stimulating marijuana use in teens.
“If young people don’t really perceive that [marijuana] is dangerous or of any concern, it usually means there’ll be an uptick in the number of kids who are using. And sure enough, in 2009, that’s exactly what we did see,” Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske recently claimed. “We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine. So it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana.”
Balderdash. The national debate regarding the medical use of cannabis began in earnest in 1996, when California voters legalized the physician-supervised use of the plant. Since then, 15 additional states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws. During virtually this entire time, teen marijuana use has fallen nationally.
Furthermore, according to federal statistics, between 2003 and 2008, self-reported monthly cannabis use among 12- to 17-year-olds dropped precipitously in every state that had enacted medical-marijuana legislation. In five states – Alaska, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington – it was reported that use fell by more than 20 percent during this period; in Hawaii, teen pot use fell by more than 30 percent.
Others have publicized this decline as well. Investigators at the Texas A&M Health Science Center reported in The International Journal of Drug Policy that “the introduction of medical cannabis laws was not associated with an increase in cannabis use. Consistent with other studies of the liberalization of cannabis laws, medical cannabis laws do not appear to increase use of the drug.”
Marijuana-use rates as a percentage of the overall population vary only slightly among states despite their remarkably varying degrees of enforcement and punishment. Several states with the most lenient marijuana-possession laws – such as Nebraska, where possession of up to 1 ounce is a civil citation, and Mississippi, where possession of up to 30 grams is a summons – have some of the lowest rates of marijuana use, while other states with strict penalties report comparatively high levels of use. In short, the drug’s legality plays little to no role in individual decisions to consume or abstain from cannabis. In fact, according to the federal government’s annual “Monitoring the Future” study, more than eight out of 10 students in 12th grade report that marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get – a percentage that has remained constant for three and a half decades. So much for the notion that criminal prohibition has limited access to marijuana among the nation’s youth. It never has and it never will.
Of course, no parent would ever want a child to abuse marijuana. But the most effective way to keep it out of teens’ hands isn’t through criminal prohibition; it’s through legalization, regulation and public education. Indeed, the Drug Czar readily acknowledges the effectiveness of these principles at reducing the use of alcohol and tobacco by teens, with the latter falling to record lows in recent years. Yet Kerlikowske maintains that this same strategy “is not in his vocabulary” when it comes to pot.
Why? Author Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle, perhaps said it best: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML and the co-author of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2009).