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Radical Rant: The “What About the Children” Anti-Marijuana Argument

Russ Belville

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In my last Radical Rant, we tackled the common prohibitionist argument that we shouldn’t have a “third legal drug.” Today, let’s dance with what is the most popular argument for maintaining arrests for adult marijuana smokers, the plaintive wail “What About the Children?"—or as I call it, WATC (pronounced watt-see).

This is one of the few arguments the prohibitionists have that still maintains any traction with the general public. It’s one we have to be careful in addressing as well, for nothing shuts off the logic circuits in a parent like threatening their children’s safety.

The first step is leveraging that fear for their children to work to our advantage. Make them fear prohibition’s effect on their kids more than whatever they’re imagining legalization’s effect will be.

“Drug dealers don’t check ID,” is one quick sound-bite response our best activists have come up with. It implicitly frames the status quo as the danger to the kids—easy access to marijuana in a system that doesn’t care if they’re under-aged—to be replaced by a system that does care.

Sometimes this maneuver gets sidetracked when the listener conjures up their experience buying alcohol as an under-aged teen. They check IDs for alcohol, but we used to get around that with a fake ID, a lax store clerk,or by having an adult buy booze for us.

“Yes, but at some point in that process,” you can answer, “we had to corrupt an adult to get our booze, right? You couldn’t just get some booze from 'Tommy the Teenaged Tequila Dealer' in the high school parking lot.”

This is the point where you can exercise a deft pivot from the concept that prohibition doesn’t check ID to the reality that prohibition creates greater teen access to marijuana.

“Nothing will ever eliminate teen access to drugs,” you’d say. “As you’ve noted, even with legal alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs, sometimes kids can get their hands on them. The question is: How easy do we make it?”

Now we paint legalization as the answer to the problem.

“With prohibition, we make marijuana so ridiculously profitable through restricting access that there’s profit in being a weed dealer," you'd say. "The reason there aren’t many high school tequila dealers isn’t because teenagers don’t like to drink; it’s because there’s no way to profit from it.”

Then hit them with some data.

“Since 1975, the government has asked 12th graders how easy it would be for them to score some weed. Consistently, for 40 years now, between 80 and 91 percent of high school seniors have said it would be easy or fairly easy to score. But last year, for the first time ever, fewer than 80 percent of seniors said they could score weed. Sure, it’s just barely below at 79.5 percent, but still, after three years of legalization, it has not gotten easier for kids to get weed.”

Then you can follow-up with the results of legalization in Washington and Colorado, where teenage use of marijuana has remained steady. You may encounter some retort about Colorado having far higher teen usage rates than the U.S. average.

“Yes,” you can reply, “and Colorado has always had greater usage rates than the U.S. average. Legalization doesn’t make people smoke pot; where people already smoke pot, they more likely favor legalization.”

At some point, the listener might try to divert the subject by explaining how terrible marijuana is for young people’s brains. They might cite kids losing 8 points of IQ or how teenage pot smoking leads to worse life outcomes, two of the popular prohibitionist talking points right now.

This can be a tricky point in the discussion.

We don’t want to seem to be dismissing the harms of marijuana to children. Trying to convince a parent that it’s really no big deal iff their kid smokes pot will activate those emotional circuits that will erase your logical argument.

But we also can’t allow reefer madness like that to stand.

“Nobody wants kids smoking pot,” you might begin, “but that IQ loss study was soundly debunked in the same journal that printed the study. Furthermore, a more recent comprehensive study of identical twins found no cognitive difference between the twin who smoked pot and the twin who didn’t.”

Then, quickly pivot to prohibition as the danger.

“Again, that’s not to say we want teenagers smoking pot. But we do recognize that legal or not, some kids will use it. And just like we wouldn’t want a teen dying from a batch of Al Capone’s moonshine, we don’t want drug dealers selling prohibition marijuana to kids laced with who knows what?”

Finally, you can use their own rhetoric against them.

“There’s no doubt marijuana use leads to worse life outcomes, because people who get caught with marijuana get expelled from school, fired from their job and locked up in a cage. If your kid did get caught with weed, would he or she be better off with a criminal record, living in your basement rather than going to college or working?”

(Photo Courtesy of Toke of the Town)

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