Pot-Smoking Teens and a Skirmish Not Worth Fighting in the War on Drugs

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John Last 1The last time I smoked pot was in 1989. I had been in prison a few years then, and even though I preferred drinking “buck,” marijuana was a lot easier to get.

Buck is what we called homemade wine, and it was a pain to make. We had to assemble all of the ingredients, find a place to hide it, and then transport it to the dormitory to drink. We got caught more often than not, and all of our work would go down the drain, literally.

My “problem” was that I never enjoyed smoking pot very much. I had smoked it two or three times in high school, and another 10 or so times in prison, but for me the effects were drowsiness and torpor. I much preferred alcohol as a teen, and had no trouble getting it at several liquor stores around town, even though I started buying it when I was 13 or so.

I have been reminded about my own drug and alcohol use lately while reading about efforts to legalize marijuana and the adverse effects of the “war on drugs.” Both liberal and conservative voices have become critical of this “war” against citizens. As reported by the New York Times, Pat Robertson, an evangelical leader and supporter of right-wing policies for decades, has called for the legalization and regulation of marijuana in the same manner alcohol is controlled. Others continue to oppose this strategy. William Bennet, a commentator for CNN, Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, and the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H.W. Bush, wrote an op-ed opposing Robertson’s proposal.

What is right for kids? The 2011 Monitoring the Future survey revealed that while consumption of alcohol and cigarettes has been declining since the mid 1990s, use of marijuana has increased. While some have argued that this calls for more police action, others think it indicates an unforeseen side effect of criminalization. Phillip Smith, writing at StoptheDrugWar.org, points out that the prohibition stand of the government keeps marijuana in the hands of drug dealers, who don’t check drivers licenses, and prevents schools from engaging in honest education about the effects of the drug.

He quotes Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, who says, “The continued decline in teen tobacco and alcohol use is proof that sensible regulations, coupled with honest, and science-based public education can be effective in keeping substances away from young people… It’s time we acknowledge that our current marijuana laws have utterly failed to accomplish one of their primary objectives — to keep marijuana away from young people — and do the right thing by regulating marijuana, bringing its sale under the rule of law, and working to reduce the easy access to marijuana that our irrational system gives teenagers.”

Others in the policy arena agree. The California Society of Addiction Medicine issued a report, Youth First, which makes a similar argument for regulation and legitimization of marijuana sales. The report points out that drug policy is seldom subject to actual evidence-based analysis, but instead serves as a political football for the parties. In fact, several European nations have decriminalized drugs, in some cases not just marijuana, with little or no effect on levels of use.Portugal in particular was noted:

Contrary to predictions, the Portuguese combination of decriminalization and ‘dissuasion efforts’ did not lead to major increases in drug use. Evidence indicates the following changes have occurred:

• Small increases in reported illicit drug use among adults

• Reduced illicit drug use among problematic drug users and adolescents

• Reduced burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system

• Increased enrollment in drug treatment

To this strategy, advocates for legalization add that government control of sales will have the same effect on teenage consumption as do similar measures dealing with alcohol and tobacco. Instead, the money saved on enforcement, court costs and incarceration can be put towards treatment and education efforts.

This debate will not be settled anytime soon, but perhaps — as with incarceration in general — economic troubles are pushing policy makers of all sides finally to take a look at the facts. Marijuana is not harmless, and no one is advocating teen use. Instead, we can acknowledge that the present policy of prohibition is not achieving the goal of lessening use by kids.

The militaristic approach is not working, and marijuana is not as harmful as it has been portrayed to be. Legalization for adults, as with other potentially dangerous substances, could in fact bring about an overall reduction in use by teens.


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