If Tobacco Regulation Works, Why Not Regulate Marijuana?

President Bush recently touted new survey results showing a modest drop in teen use of marijuana and other drugs, but he failed to mention the drug for which prevention efforts have had the most spectacular success -- tobacco. If he had, he might have had to make some troubling comparisons.

Citing the results of the annual Monitoring the Future survey, Bush noted that drug use has declined from its recent peak in 1996, but sidestepped the longer-term picture that doesn't look nearly so rosy.

If you go back 15 years, to 1992, drug use is up almost across the board. For example, in 1992, 3.7 percent of eighth-graders were current marijuana users, compared with 5.7 percent in 2007. For 12th-graders, the figures were 11.9 percent and 18.8 percent, respectively.

This contrasts sharply with the figures on adolescent cigarette use. Here, too, there was a bit of a rise in the mid-1990s, but overall, the trend is much more encouraging.

While marijuana use is higher among all age groups than it was 15 years ago, cigarette smoking has dropped remarkably. Among 12th-graders, current cigarette smoking has dropped from 27.8 percent in 1992 to 21.6 percent this year. For eighth-graders, the drop is even more dramatic, from 15.5 percent down to 7.1 percent.

And here's a figure that may be shocking: Among 10th-graders, 14.0 percent currently smoke cigarettes, while 14.2 percent smoke marijuana. That's right: Slightly more 10th-graders now smoke marijuana than cigarettes.

The sharp drop in cigarette use is not attributable to changing attitudes about smoking. Teen disapproval of smoking is only marginally higher than it was in 1992, for all age groups.

So what accounts for the drop in tobacco use? The regulation of cigarette sales and marketing. As part of the Master Settlement Agreement with 46 states, cigarette companies agreed to stop outdoor advertising and to banish kid-friendly characters such as Joe Camel. Even more important, we as a nation got serious about reducing tobacco sales to kids.

In 1992, Congress passed the Synar Amendment, requiring states to enact and enforce laws prohibiting sale of tobacco products to youth under the age of 18, and setting up unannounced inspections of retail outlets. The program has worked spectacularly well. In 1997, inspectors found that over 40 percent of retailers were violating the ban on cigarette sales to kids. By 2006, the violation rate had dropped to just 10.9 percent, and it's still dropping.

So what does this have to do with marijuana?

Simply put, we have leverage over tobacco sellers that we don't have with marijuana dealers. Because tobacco retailers and producers are licensed and regulated, we have some control over them. If they want to keep their lucrative businesses, cigarette merchants have a strong incentive to follow the laws -- even laws they don't like.

Consider this: As part of their reaction to the Synar Amendment, tobacco retailers adopted a "voluntary" program called "We Card." Today, virtually any store that sells cigarettes posts a large, brightly colored sign saying, "Under 18, No Tobacco. We Card."

Have you ever seen a marijuana dealer with a "We Card" sign?

If we want to control teen access to marijuana, it's time to learn a lesson from our success with tobacco. Contrary to the mythology put out by Drug Czar John Walters and his ilk, the complete prohibition of marijuana for adults not only doesn't help to keep marijuana away from kids, but it actually hampers such efforts.

Regulation works. Prohibition deprives authorities of the best tools available to successfully regulate sales and marketing. Prohibition has handed the entire, annual $113 billion marijuana industry over to unregulated criminals, with entirely predictable consequences.

If we really want to control marijuana and keep it away from our kids, it's time to bring it within the law and regulate it as we do tobacco.

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