The Wrong Way to Legalize Marijuana

Whether Nevada voters approve the Marijuana Policy Project's ballot initiative in November to legalize marijuana for adults is not particularly important. Nevada already legalizes gambling and prostitution, and its current marijuana law subjects adults caught with pot, even three times, to mere misdemeanor citation. Another grownup party option in Nevada would hardly make history.

However, MPP's initiative is important because it reveals the capitulation by major drug-policy reform groups to the cruelties of America's "War on Drugs." Abandoning scientific research showing criminalization of drug use causes more harm than drugs themselves, MPP's initiative explicitly endorses the hardline drug-war doctrine that draconian, lifelong punishments should be imposed on young people who try marijuana. The Nevada initiative permitting adults over age 21 to buy and possess up to three ounces of marijuana also constitutionally commands the legislature to "provide or maintain" criminal penalties for persons under 21. Maintaining Nevada's law means a young person caught with a single joint faces a $5,000 fine, four years in prison, a felony record, and permanently jeopardized student loans, government benefits, and employment.

Half of all marijuana arrestees are under age 21, rendering MPP's claim that Nevada's initiative would "end the arrest of all marijuana users" flatly false. In fact, it sacrifices young people to increased drug-war endangerment in a political ploy to boost the odds of winning grass for grownups.

Nevada's initiative menaces young people in several ways. As every nation but ours recognizes, adolescents' task is not to abstain from everything, but to experiment with, practice, and master adult behaviors. This is why adolescents use drugs that are legal for adults far more than illegal drugs, and why families and locales with high rates of adult drug use also have high rates of teenage drug use. If Nevada's initiative passes, teenage marijuana use is likely to rise. Unfortunately, the more American adults grant themselves rights, the more they punish teenagers for acting like adults. It's no accident that the U.S. has the weakest laws governing adult alcohol use and the most punitive against teenage drinking, or that adult playgrounds like Nevada are notoriously mean to youths.

As Nevada's dismal campaign already shows, adolescents are falsely vilified as the "drug problem" by both drug reformers and drug warriors. Consider the worst distortions by both sides:

--Drug reformers such as the Drug Policy Alliance's Robert Sharpe and drug warriors such as Columbia University's Joseph Califano agree that drug policy should prioritize stopping all teenage use even of mild drugs. In truth, America‚s unadmitted drug abuse crisis, and worst drug threat to youth, is widespread addiction, overdose, crime, and family violence among middle-aged Baby Boomers.

--"Right now kids have an easier time buying pot than beer." This whopper is peddled by the reformist Common Sense for Drug Policy and DPA (quoted) and by Califano. In fact, all major surveys consistently show teenagers obtain and use legal, regulated alcohol and cigarettes two to 25 times more than any illicit drug. The 2001 Monitoring the Future survey is typical: 70 percent of eighth graders find alcohol and cigarettes "easy to get," compared to 48% for marijuana. Twice as many eighth graders regularly use alcohol than pot, and the gap for older teens is wider.

--"A regulated market with enforceable age controls"--such as we have for alcohol and tobacco and The Netherlands has for marijuana--will "protect children" from getting drugs. This bad joke by drug reformers reverses their previous, factual position that alcohol and tobacco are America's chief drugs of abuse. It dismisses the higher rates of legal-drug use by U.S. adolescents. It ignores definitive Trimbos Institute surveys showing that marijuana use quadrupled among Dutch youth after the Netherlands legalized marijuana for adults. While, two decades ago, Dutch teens smoked pot one-fourth as often as U.S. teens, today the levels are equivalent--another matter drug reformers misrepresent.

Is there some apocalyptic difference between a 16 year-old and a 30 year-old, or a 20- and 21-year-old, smoking marijuana that justifies a drastic difference in penalties? DPA's research bible, Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts, reviews hundreds of scholarly studies and reports none showing marijuana more harmful for adolescents than for adults. Marijuana is not a "gateway drug" leading to hard-drug addiction, and older marijuana users face greater likelihood than younger ones of panic attacks and bad reactions from mixing pot with alcohol and hard drugs, research reports.

The chief marijuana risk to youth is arrest and punishment--a danger Nevada's mean-spirited initiative exacerbates. The best hope for real reform lies in its defeat and genuine introspection as to how America's once-honest drug policy reformers devolved into duplicitous politickers willing to accept ruining youthful lives with harsh sanctions just to facilitate grownup highs. Until reformers are prepared to make the case for legalizing teenagers‚ normal right to experiment with adult drugs, they should not propose expanding adult drug rights.

Mike Males has written four books on youth issues and teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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