One scare about marijuana legalization that still resonates, though less with passing years, is WATC -- What About The Children? The fear articulated is that legalized marijuana guarantees more kids smoking pot. Legal weed will be marketed by evil corporations that, like Big Tobacco a generation before, will entice the youngsters with anthropomorphic phallus-faced cartoon camels (I’ve never understood how Joe Camel was supposed to be “cool” to kids.)
No matter what we do, kids will get their hands on drugs. When it comes to pot, for a few decades now when asked “How hard it is to get marijuana,” at least 80% of teens say “easy” or “fairly easy.” That number fluctuates and sometimes gets as high as 90%. So, what, we’re locking up adults over pot to make it slightly more difficult for that one or two out of ten kids who can’t find pot? And somehow “easy” to “fairly easy” is going to rise to 100% when we’re selling marijuana from adults-only stores and carding kids for ID?
Here are the facts: When I was in high school (1981-1985), about 90% of 12th graders had tried alcohol and about 70% had tried tobacco. Nowadays, less than 70% of 12th graders have tried alcohol and less than 40% have tried tobacco (fewer than have tried marijuana). The drop in alcohol use corresponds fairly clearly to the introduction of the nationwide 21 drinking age and increased carding around 1987. The drop in tobacco use starts at the Big Tobacco settlement of 1997 that put smokes behind locked counters, killed cigarette vending machines and Joe Camel, and increased carding. Neither of those very addictive drugs had to be prohibited nor did any adult users have to be arrested to get fewer kids to try them.
Here are more facts: The greatest use of marijuana occurs between ages 18-21, where one out of three will use pot this year and one out of five will use this month. However, the median age of a pot smoker is around 26 and the mean is around 29; that tells us that any growth in the marijuana market has to occur among older adults -- the young adult market is saturated. In 2002, there were 3 tokers aged 12-17 for every toker over age 50. Now, there are 2.5 senior tokers for every kid toker. The average age of a medical marijuana patient in California is 33. It seems like increased legal access pushes the marijuana market more into the adult demographic. Kids are already finding it “easy” to “fairly easy” to get, but the adults aren’t as likely to risk their job and family meeting some guy in a parking lot for a weed deal. Give them a nice dispensary or pot shop to go to, however, and they’ll be happy to buy weed.
Nobody can predict for certain if legalization will lead to more marijuana use among minors, but the real question is whether harm increases. By removing the harms of prohibition markets, we make kids safer from violence, arrest, and tainted product. For some, marijuana may become a substitute for alcohol or prescription drugs, reducing those harms. It’s definitely better for kids whose parents won’t be imprisoned and remanded to second-class citizenship over marijuana. Since what we did with alcohol and tobacco worked so well, let’s try it with marijuana.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of "The Russ Belville Show."