U.S. Drug Czar Learns Wrong Lesson From Teen Drug Use Survey


The 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey of teen drug use is out, and, once again, it is clear that education and regulatory restrictions are more effective than prohibition and criminalization. While teen marijuana use is up slightly, teen tobacco use remains at record lows (although it did show statistically insignificant increases over last year). Instead of asking what can we learn from historically low tobacco use rates that might improve U.S. marijuana policy, White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske points a finger at state medical marijuana laws, the national debate on marijuana legalization, and, well, anything but the failed, counterproductive marijuana policies of the last 40 years.

According to the 2010 Survey, teen marijuana use rose for all prevalence periods (lifetime, past year, past 30 days, and daily in the past 30 days). Daily marijuana use among high school seniors is now at 6.1%, the highest rate since the early 1980s. Overall, 21.4% of high school seniors used marijuana at least once last month, an increase of 0.8% over the past year. "Though this upward shift is not yet very large, its duration and pervasiveness leave no doubt in our minds that it is real," said Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study.

Kerlikowske attributes the increase to the growing recognition that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and other drugs, and that teenagers are starting to think marijuana is medicine. "We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine," Kerlikowske told ABC News Radio. "So it shouldn't be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana."

Opponents of any change in America's failed drug policies always throw out the myth that talking about reform sends a dangerous message to teens. The evidence says otherwise. Fifteen states (plus Washington, D.C.) have legalized marijuana for medical use and 13 states have decriminalized marijuana for personal use. Decades of research has consistently demonstrated that marijuana use rates in those states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states. This evidence squarely contradicts Kerlikowske's unfounded claims that there is a causal relationship between marijuana law reform and marijuana use rates.

In fact, drug use rates fluctuate all the time and this fluctuation rarely has anything to do with what politicians are debating. Studies around the world have found that the relative harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates of illegal drug use in the United States are higher than those in Europe, despite our more punitive policies. There are many reasons why a teenager would choose to use or not use a drug, but the views of a U.S. Senator, or for that matter the Drug Czar, surely are not one of them.

The U.S. made almost 860,000 arrests for marijuana last year, including 760,000 arrests for mere possession; yet teen marijuana use is on the rise. In contrast, tobacco use remains far below its 1996 peak and that has been achieved without criminalization and mass arrests. Two very different drug policies - with two very different results. It is long past time to make marijuana legal so it can be controlled, regulated and taxed as part of an effective health-based drug policy.

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