Keep marijuana illegal – for teens – Cover Story
Thomas W. Clark
Many adults, especially if they hold public office, profess to be alarmed at the increasing prevalence of marijuana use among teenagers. Teens, on the other hand, don’t seem particularly worried. The rise in the number of adolescent marijuana users over the last four years has been accompanied by a decline in the risk they perceive of smoking it occasionally. Indeed, some researchers hypothesize that prevafence has increased precisely because the perception of risk has lessened
Compared to marijuana, the use of harder drugs–such as cocaine and heroin–has risen much more slowly over the same period and now seems to be leveling off. Perhaps teens recognize what the National Institute on Drug Abuse has been at pains recently to deny: that there are valid distinctions between soft and hard drugs in addictiveness and potential for harm, and that such distinctions can inform one’s choice of psychoactive substance. Marijuana is perceived by many, mostly older, adolescents as no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco and far less risky to use occasionally than crack or heroin.
Teens, in short, are not stupid, and in this case their perceptions are pretty much on the mark. Although certainly not risk free (no psychoactive substances are), marijuana compares favorably with alcohol and tobacco with regard to health hazards and potential for abuse. Consequently, the attempt to tar it with the same brush as cocaine and heroin simply backfires, undercutting the credibility of both the NIDA and beleaguered parents who are asked to instill fear of the “evil weed” into their increasingly skeptical children.
Much is made of pot being a gateway drug that leads to further experimentation and addiction, but as even the NIDA admits, most casual marijuana smokers don’t progress to other drugs or become addicts. Except for powerfully and instantaneously reinforcing drugs like crack, heroin, and methamphetamine, it’s not the particular substance one encounters that usually leads to addiction. Rather, it’s a combination of risk factors–a difficult family situation, peer pressure, poor social adjustment, and being idle after school hours–which makes teenage abuse and dependence likely. If marijuana is a gateway to hard drugs at all, it is most likely due to its illicit status: the purveyors of pot can put your adolescent in touch with the local crack connection.
None of this is to deny that using marijuana has its risks and long-term effects, and its use by developing adolescents should therefore be discouraged and remain illegal. As the disastrous health consequences of cigarette smoking make clear, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana–delta-9-tetrabydrocannabinol (THC)–would best be ingested without inhaling the carcinogenic byproducts of a burning plant. (Marijuana is actually worse than tobacco in that respect.) While not nearly as devastating as chronic alcoholism, the regular and prolonged use of THC may compromise shortterm memory and perhaps other cognitive functions, and preliminary research, although by no means definitive, has also implicated THC as an immune system suppressor. Even though non smoked THC is approved for medicinal purposes, and thus has been found safe and effective for some applications, its recreational use (as for alcohol and nicotine) should remain occasional and restricted to those over the age of twenty-one. Pregnant women should avoid it, and the penalties that now apply to drunk driving should also apply to those who drive under the influence of THC.
Despite its bad official press, marijuana actually ranks lowest in addictive potential of all commonly used sub stances even below caffeine, according to two independent ratings by the NIDA and the University of California. This means that its increased availability following decriminalization for adults would not result, as some fear, in an epidemic of cannabis abuse. Nevertheless, the dangers of dependence should be stressed in health classes, as part of a curriculum that prepares adolescents for making responsible choices about whether and how to use mood altering substances when they come of age.
The best argument, perhaps, for keeping marijuana illegal across the board is that we simply don’t need another widely available intoxicating substance, however benign, which might deflect adolescents from the necessary business of putting their lives together. But the horse is already well clear of the barn. In recent surveys, many teens say that it’s nearly as easy to get marijuana as alcohol and cigarettes. Drug enforcement hawks will reply that this means stricter sanctions are necessary, but how strict are we willing to get to suppress behavior that, in moderation, is no more risky (subtracting the risks of criminal prosecution) than having an occasional glass of wine with dinner?
Such policy questions should be addressed while keeping in mind the contingent history of our relationship with psychoactive substances. Since things could have turned out quite differently. We should not suppose that our current selection of legal drugs is ultimately correct. Marijuana, not tobacco, might have become the fashionable ingredient for cigarettes in European salons, and alcohol might now be illegal had prohibition survived. What then drives the ideology that declares marijuana to be forever beyond the pale and that absurdly classifies it with much more dangerous substances?
Some opponents of legalizing marijuana fear that it would set us on a slippery slope toward accepting any and all drugs, but this fear is irrational precisely because all drugs are not the same. We justly balk at making available those substances which are highly addictive and harmful. (Witness the growing effort to curtail cigarette sales to minors.) Other opponents, most of them hardly teetotalers, share the conventional prejudice that getting high on pot is somehow morally suspect. They suppose that some intoxicants (the currently legal ones, it just so happens) are fine while the rest are corrupting, and that we therefore shouldn’t expand our repertoire of even mildly altered states. But if the effects of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine used in moderation are perfectly acceptable, why not those of marijuana used in moderation? It seems arbitrary to deny ourselves this relatively innocuous indulgence on such flimsy grounds, especially when the cost of prohibition is so high in person-hours of enforcement and in sentence-years served.
If we fail to reconsider our current marijuana policy, teenagers will continue to judge adults hypocritical and continue to light up joints as they chant, “Just say no!” A better course would be to introduce teens to the responsibilities, pleasures, and risks of adult life by informing them accurately about substance use, just as we do (or should do) for sexuality, diet, exercise, careers, and avocations. A rational, scientifically grounded consideration of psychoactive substances, unclouded by the prohibitionist reflex will show marijuana to be a comparatively harmless addition to legal drugs.
In our public health campaigns, we should vigorously advise against smoking marijuana while developing other means of ingesting recreational THC that standardize the dose and guarantee purity (food and beverage industries, take note). As with alcohol and tobacco, we should limit its availability to adolescents by establishing a minimum age for possession, enforced by appropriate penalties. While illicit use by teens will inevitably continue, we won’t be denying them marijuana on the spurious basis that there is something especially bad about pot. We’ll be denying it for the same good reason we deny teens butts and booze: at their age, they’ve got more important things to do, such as fashioning a life that doesn’t revolve around looking cool or getting high.
Thomas W. Clark is a frequent contributor to The Humanist and currently a researcher in the field of addictions at a non profit firm in Boston, Massachusetts.
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