Pubdate: Tue, 17 May 2005
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2005 The Washington Post Company
Author: Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Cutting Marijuana Use Calls for More Than Tough Policing

The increased potency of today's marijuana and the greater knowledge
we have of the dangers of using marijuana justify the increased
attention that law enforcement is giving to illegal possession of the
drug. But the disappointing reality is that a nearly 30 percent
increase in marijuana arrests does not translate into a comparable
reduction in use of the drug. Something more is needed.

Rudolph Giuliani's success in slashing New York City's crime rate by,
among other things, going after low-level street crimes such as
smoking and selling small amounts of marijuana inspired many other
mayors to follow suit. When President Bush announced in 2002 a goal of
reducing illegal drug use by 10 percent in two years and 25 percent in
five years, he knew he had to focus on cutting marijuana use.
Eliminating all other illegal drug use combined would not even get him
close to his highly touted objective.

 From the standpoint of protecting children, teens and the public
health, reducing marijuana use makes eminent sense. For even though
marijuana use has leveled off or waned slightly over the past several
years, the number of children and teenagers in treatment for marijuana
dependence and abuse has jumped 142 percent since 1992, and the number
of teen emergency room admissions in which marijuana is implicated is
up almost 50 percent since 1999. Though alcohol remains by far the
teen substance of choice, teens are three times likelier to be in
treatment for marijuana than for alcohol (and six times likelier to be
in treatment for marijuana than for all other illegal drugs combined).

As has been true of tobacco since the 1960s, we've learned a lot about
the dangers of marijuana since the 1970s. The drug adversely affects
short-term memory, the ability to concentrate and motor skills. Recent
studies indicate that it increases the likelihood of depression,
schizophrenia and other serious mental health problems. Nora Volkow,
director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has repeatedly
expressed concern about the adverse impact of marijuana on the brain,
a matter of particular moment for youngsters whose brains are still in
the development stage. Volkow has stated: "There is no question
marijuana can be addictive; that argument is over. The most important
thing right now is to understand the vulnerability of young,
developing brains to these increased concentrations of cannabis."

The issue of marijuana use (and most illegal drug use) is all about
kids. If we can get kids not to smoke marijuana before they reach age
21, they are virtually certain never to do so. So let's do more than
trumpet the arrest rate. Let's focus on discouraging children and
teens from getting involved with the drug in the first place.

This begins with understanding the importance of preventing kids from
becoming cigarette smokers. Most kids who smoke cigarettes will not
smoke marijuana, but a 2003 survey of 12- to 17-year-olds, conducted
by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at
Columbia University, reveals that teens who smoke cigarettes are much
likelier than non-smokers to try marijuana; they are also likelier to
become regular marijuana users.

The next question is how to make public policies, including law
enforcement approaches, more effective in discouraging marijuana use.
Availability is the mother of use, so doing a far better job of
reducing availability is high on the list. Beyond that -- and
recognizing that reducing demand is key to that goal -- we should use
the increased arrest rate as an opportunity to discourage use.

Years ago, while I was visiting Los Angeles, then-Mayor Dick Riordan
told me that in his city kids were arrested an average of nine times
for possession of marijuana before anything happened to them. I have
since discovered that this situation is common in many American
communities. Most kids do not even get a slap on the wrist the first
few times they're nabbed for smoking a joint. As a result, we let them
sink deeper and deeper into drug use, with its dangers to their
physical, mental and emotional development and its risk of addiction.

I am not suggesting that we put kids in jail for smoking pot. But why
not treat a teen arrested for marijuana use much the same way we treat
a teen arrested for drunk driving? Why not require kids arrested for
marijuana possession to attend classes to learn about the dangers of
marijuana use and to develop some skills (and the will) to decline the
next time they are offered the drug? The incentive to attend such
classes would be the threat of the alternative: for the first couple
of arrests, loss of a driver's license or a fine stiff enough to hurt;
for continued use, a few nights in a local prison. Getting kids to
attend sessions designed to discourage their marijuana use would give
some practical meaning to increased law enforcement and would bring
reductions in drug use more in line with increased arrest rates.

These steps will help, but the fact is that we cannot arrest our way
out of the teen marijuana problem when (in a recent CASA survey) 40
percent of 12- to 17-year-olds report that they can buy the drug
within a day, and 21 percent say they can buy it within an hour.

Parents are the first line of defense. Parents must understand that
the drug available today is far more potent than what they might have
smoked in the 1970s. For their children, smoking marijuana is not a
harmless rite of passage but rather a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

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The writer is president of the National Center on Addiction and
Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was secretary of health,
education and welfare from 1977 to 1979 and President Lyndon Johnson's
assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969. 
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