Pubdate: Sat, 19 Jan 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Steve Chapman


Protecting Teens? It Hasn't Worked

As recreational drugs go, marijuana is relatively benign. Unlike
alcohol, it doesn't stimulate violence or destroy livers. Unlike
tobacco, it doesn't cause lung cancer and heart disease. The worst you
can say is that it produces intense, unreasoning panic. Not in users,
but in critics.

Those critics have less influence all the time. Some 18 states permit
medical use of marijuana, and in November, Colorado and Washington
voted to allow recreational use. Nationally, support for legalization
is steadily rising. A decade ago, one of every three Americans favored
the idea. Today, nearly half do - and among those under 50, a large
majority does.

These trends have die-hard drug warriors screaming bloody murder.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., has formed a new organization to
stop what he imagines to be the "300-miles-per-hour freight train to
legalization." He says that such a change would be especially harmful
to teenagers.

White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske insists that even allowing
medicinal pot "sends a terrible message" to adolescents. Mitchell
Rosenthal, a psychiatrist who founded the substance-abuse treatment
group Phoenix House, says there is "mounting evidence of the dangers
it poses, especially to young users."

They might have a point if existing drug laws were keeping weed out of
the hands of wayward kids. In truth, they're about as effective as a
picket fence in a tidal wave. In a 2009 survey, high school students
said they found it easier to get than beer. In 2011, 23 percent of
12th-graders said they had used weed in the preceding month.

In the past five years, drinking and cigarette smoking have dropped by
more than 10 percent among high school seniors. But pot smoking has
risen by 23 percent. Alcohol and tobacco are legal for adults.
Marijuana is not.

What these trends indicate is that authorizing the sale and use of a
substance does not necessarily mean more people will use it. There is
no contradiction between letting adults make up their own minds, with
some government regulation, and providing effective education for
youngsters about the hazards of underage consumption.

No one, after all, is talking about putting pot in vending machines or
handing out blunts at Taylor Swift concerts. The idea is to treat pot
like booze - permitting its sale and use to adults in a
government-regulated market, with penalties for behavior (like driving
under the influence) that endangers other people.

The tolerance-fuels-use theory is thunderously lacking in real-world
support. In the Netherlands, where "coffee shops" are allowed to sell
pot, teenagers are far less likely to use it than their American peers.

The experience here falls short of bloodcurdling. "In the states that
have passed medical-marijuana laws, youth marijuana use has
decreased," Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the Drug Policy
Alliance, told me. In California, "the number of seventh-, ninth- and
11th-graders reporting marijuana use in the last six months and in
their lifetimes all declined" after 1996, when the state passed its
medical marijuana law.

The alleged harms of cannabis on the teen mind and body are generally
exaggerated. Critics have trumpeted a study last year that said
teenagers with a heavy habit turn out to have lower IQs as adults than
their peers who avoided the stuff.

But a new assessment by Norwegian scientist Ole Rogeberg, published in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that
the IQ differences might well stem from differences in income,
education and other factors. "The true effect," he said, "could be
zero." It's pretty clear that heavy drinking is a far bigger danger to
developing brains.

Those worried about the welfare of potheads might also want to take
into account the dangers that exist only because cannabis is illegal.
Criminals who grow or supply the stuff have little incentive to
monitor quality, prevent adulteration or assure consistent doses.

A kid who gets his hands on beer doesn't have to worry about getting
toxic chemicals or nasty fillers. Buying pot in illicit markets may
also expose users of all ages to violence, robbery or extortion. But
you don't see innocent bystanders getting killed in shootouts among
liquor store owners.

The alternative to legalization is sticking with a policy that has
produced millions of arrests, squandered hundreds of billions of
dollars and turned many harmless people into criminals in the eyes of
the law - all while failing to stem the popularity of pot. For kids or
adults, there is nothing healthy in that.

Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs
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