Weekend Highlights

Published October 4, 2012
Health & Development

Marijuana Initiative 502: Would Legalization Impact Teen Usage?

by Lisa Stiffler

When it comes to keeping teens away from marijuana, many experts agree that our current system isn’t working.

Compared to European youth, American teens have a much higher rate of marijuana use and don’t view smoking weed as particularly dangerous, according to research released this summer. 

In fact, marijuana use has been on the rise among U.S. teens in the last couple of years, and in 2011, approximately 1-in-15 high school seniors were smoking it on a near daily basis.

So how do we nip this problem in the bud?

In November, Washington voters will consider one potential fix: legalize it.

Initiative 502 would make it legal for state-licensed businesses to sell limited amounts of marijuana to adults 21 and over. It would tax the drug, with a large portion of the revenue earmarked for drug-abuse treatment and education, including school-based prevention programs.

The proposed measure has earned some big-name support from rather unlikely folks, including Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington John McKay, public health physicians, professors, prominent lawyers and the Children’s Alliance, a long-time advocate for children’s issues in the state.

“Prohibition has been a failure,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of Children’s Alliance. “Many youth have access (to marijuana) under prohibition. We think marijuana is inappropriate for young people and we think we can prevent teen use without criminalizing it for adults.”

The issue of access has been one of the big concerns regarding youth. Some argue that it would become more difficult for kids to buy weed if it was legal for adults and sales were regulated. Others aren’t sure.

"I find the arguments that commercial legalization would reduce youth access to marijuana very unconvincing," said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Kilmer predicts that I-502 would likely lead to a price reduction, which potentially could increase use among youth. His organization does not have a position on the Washington ballot measure.

Supporters of the initiative argue that access is the wrong angle on which to focus when trying to curb teen drug use.

“The surveys tell us that teenagers readily have access to marijuana. I think that in the long run, the question of how to prevent harm to teenagers is not so much how to eliminate access – I don’t think that’s going to be an achievable goal,” said Roger Roffman, professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s School of Social Work and expert on marijuana use. “In the long run, the prevention of harm is going to be [achieved by] changing norms in our society about what it encourages in young people,” he said. "That means educating youth about the dangers of marijuana and focusing on preventing drug abuse." 

In August, a group of international scientists from Duke University and institutions in London and New Zealand published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that the
regular use of marijuana beginning in adolescence resulted in a significant decline in IQ in adulthood. The study subjects who smoked the most weed as teens scored the greatest decline in tests of intelligence, memory and reasoning as adults.  The researchers suggested teenage brains are still growing and developing, making them more susceptible to lasting damage.

Even if Washington voters approved I-502, it’s unclear whether federal authorities would permit marijuana farming, sales and possession. Use of the drug remains illegal under U.S. law.

If I-502 passed and was enacted, here’s how it would work:

  • The state’s Liquor Control Board would license marijuana growers and stores that would sell only that product.
  • Marijuana retailers could not be located within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds or parks.
  • There would be strict limits on advertising.
  • Selling the drug to minors would remain a felony.
  • Marijuana would have a 25 percent excise tax, as well as retail sales and B&O taxes.
  • 40 percent of the taxes would go toward local budgets and the state general fund, while 60 percent is slated for drug research, education, abuse prevention and treatment.
  • The state would set a new legal limit for the amount of active THC – the intoxicating component of cannabis – that could be present in a driver’s blood (5 nanograms per milliliter of blood).
  • It would be illegal for a driver under the age of 21 to have any detectable amount THC in their blood.

Oregon and Colorado also will have marijuana legalization measures on their November ballots. In Colorado, the state’s largest teachers union has joined the opposition to the state proposal. Their Washington counterpart hasn’t taken a stand on I-502.

In fact, the main Washington organization opposing the initiative isn’t fighting the measure because its members are opposed to marijuana use by adults, but rather over concerns about how it could affect those using the drug as prescribed by doctors.

Washington is one of 19 states plus the District of Columbia that have decriminalized or essentially legalized the use of medical cannabis. Washington voters approved the medical use of weed in 1998, and minors can also be prescribed the drug – a provision that wouldn’t change under I-502.

Steve Sarich, spokesman for the no campaign, fears that a minor with a medical prescription caught driving with active THC in their blood would be prosecuted, resulting in a permanently sullied legal record. Sarich also said that the restrictions on where the marijuana stores can be located would make it nearly impossible to open one in the Seattle area.

“This is the new prohibition,” Sarich claimed.

Others disagree.

Gould, of the Children’s Alliance, said his organization is supporting I-502 in part because of concern over parents being incarcerated due to minor marijuana infractions. Criminal convictions can make parents ineligible for public housing and federal student loans, and make it harder to land jobs that will support their family. Gould said that research has shown that African Americans are disproportionately prosecuted for marijuana-related offenses, making this a racial issue as well.

Decriminalizing marijuana use for adults could benefit Washington families, he said.

The key to the legalization measure, many supporters said, is the educational component.

In the last 15 years, the fraction of American teens smoking tobacco has decreased, in part because of targeted public health campaigns. Some I-502 supporters hope that success could be duplicated through education about the health dangers of marijuana smoking that would be funded by the new tax revenue.

“That is going to be a critical component of harm reduction for young people,” the UW’s Roffman said. “Far too many young people think that marijuana is no big deal.”

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