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Legalization of Marijuana: What about the Kids?

Last month Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia joined Colorado and Washington as voters approved initiatives to legalize marijuana. Other states, including California, are likely to follow in 2016.

Voters passed these initiatives not as an endorsement of marijuana per se, but as an effort to undo the damage done by its criminalization: out-of-control youth access, massive numbers of arrests, and the crime, corruption and violence that comes with a multi-billion dollar illicit market.  Tax revenues derived from sales, meanwhile, can provide local and state governments with badly needed funds for education and other critical services.

Today, the end of marijuana prohibition increasingly seems inevitable, with a majority of Americans favoring legalization, and three-fourths believing marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.

While none of these new laws allow sales to minors, parents like me are understandably concerned about the potential impact of these reforms on teenagers.

Many worry that legalization might “send the wrong message,” leading to an escalation in teenage use.

As a federally funded researcher, I regularly check survey data and am reassured by the annual Monitoring the Future survey of high school students’ drug use, which found recently that a majority of teens say that even if marijuana was legal, they would not try it. Preliminary data from the post-legalization 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey revealed that high school marijuana use in Colorado had actually decreased.

This has also been the case in states where medical marijuana is legal. Research published in prestigious journals such as the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health generally show no association between medical marijuana laws and rates of teenage marijuana use. In California, where such laws have been in place for 18 years and are perhaps most lenient, marijuana use among teens is less prevalent now than before medical marijuana was legalized, according to the recent California Student Survey.

Even if legalization for adults does not affect teenage use, it does present an opportunity to re-think our approach to drug abuse prevention and education – both in school and at home.

Teenagers have used marijuana, along with alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other intoxicants, for decades. Parents and educators have consistently advocated abstinence, but despite our admonitions and advice, significant numbers of teenagers have continued to “experiment.”  Legalization presents just one more challenge, as marijuana becomes a normal part of the adult world, akin to alcohol.

By Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD
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