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Why More Kids Smoke Marijuana Than Cigarettes

If the idea is to stop teen substance use, the approach we've used with tobacco works better than the approach we've taken with marijuana: regulation of adult use rather than prohibition.
 
 
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The biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released May 21 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contained a bombshell:

More U.S. teens are now smoking marijuana than smoke cigarettes.

That's right. Among high school students, current use -- defined as use within the last 30 days -- is now higher for marijuana than for cigarettes. According to the CDC, 21.9 percent of teens reported smoking cigarettes within the last month, while 22.4 percent smoked marijuana.

There is a lesson here, but one that policymakers won't want to hear: If the idea is to stop teen substance use, the approach we've used with tobacco works better than the approach we've taken with marijuana. That means regulation of adult use, rather than prohibition.

That may seem hard to believe, but the long-term trends are telling. In the decade from 1993 to 2003, the percentage of teens reporting current cigarette use dropped by nearly one third, from 30.5 percent to 21.9 percent. Other smoking indicators dropped dramatically, too. For example, the proportion that had smoked a full cigarette by age 13 fell from 26.9 percent to 18.3 percent.

For marijuana, despite a marginal, statistically insignificant decrease last year, the long-term trend has been heading in the opposite direction. Past-month marijuana use has risen nearly five percentage points since 1993, when it was just 17.7 percent. Even more alarming, the number of kids smoking marijuana before age 13 went up from 6.9 percent in 1993 to 9.9 percent last year.

Though the exact numbers vary, other youth surveys document the same trend. The latest federally-funded Monitoring the Future survey, for example, found current marijuana use higher than cigarette use among 10th graders but still a bit lower among eighth and 12th graders -- again with marijuana use well up from a decade ago and tobacco use down.

Why is teen cigarette smoking dropping so impressively, while marijuana use remains essentially stuck at high levels?

Two words: "We Card."

If you've been in just about any store that sells cigarettes in the last few years, you've seen the signs: "Under 18, No Tobacco. We Card." The bright red and yellow placards are impossible to miss. The effort, begun in 1995, has become almost ubiquitous.

While the We Card campaign is a voluntary effort, it was the result of public and legal pressure. Americans made it clear we don't like cigarettes being sold to kids, and legislators in many states responded with tough laws. Merchants who sell cigarettes to youths under 18 can face stiff fines and, in many jurisdictions, can lose their license to sell tobacco.

It has worked -- not perfectly, but to a substantial degree -- as can be seen from a new question the CDC added to its survey in 2001: Do you usually get your cigarettes by buying them in a store or gas station? For kids under 18, this figure dropped sharply, from 8.6 percent in 2001 to 6.2 percent in 2003.

Under a policy of regulation, society has control over tobacco retailers. We can fine them, suspend their business licenses, or even put them out of business if they don't follow the rules. So when America got serious about curbing tobacco sales to minors, they got the message.

We have no such control of marijuana dealers, who are unlicensed and completely unregulated. Efforts to stamp them out haven't even put a minor crimp in marijuana's availability: For two and a half decades running, between 82 and 90 percent of teens have told the Monitoring the Future survey that marijuana is "easy to get."

Today, precisely zero marijuana sellers have "We Card" signs by the cash register. We can change that by ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition for adults, and replacing it with the sort of responsible regulation that has proven effective with tobacco.

Steve Fox, a father of two, is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.