This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Initiative 502 has the virtue of acknowledging a reality: The state is already rife with marijuana, and criminalizing it hasn’t made it go away.
Give its authors credit for honesty. Unlike the charades and subterfuges of “medical cannabis,” I-502 is a straightforward attempt to get pot out of the black market and into state-licensed retail stores.
Give them credit, too, for a good faith effort to keep the drug within bounds. The measure contains serious restrictions on would-be sellers, store locations and driving-while-stoned. Something like I-502 would be a reasonable way to deal with adult use of marijuana – though this is ultimately a federal and not a state issue.
But adult use is not the chief issue with marijuana. People who get past high school before they try it are unlikely to become compulsive users. For juveniles, the odds are much worse.
Any psychoactive drug – including alcohol – tends to have a much greater long-term impact on adolescents than on adults.
It’s a matter of brain development. Kids who get in the habit of smoking dope at, say, 15 often become heavy users because their brains get wired to crave it.
Compulsive marijuana use is damaging. It can derail educations, jobs, relationships, emotional maturity – life in general.
There are other threats. Considerable research has linked adolescent marijuana use to early-onset schizophrenia. A newly released study, which followed more than 1,000 New Zealanders 38 years from youth through adulthood, found significant IQ impairment among heavy users who started smoking pot at an early age.
I-502 again deserves credit for recognizing the problem. It prohibits anyone under 21 from possessing cannabis (not that that’s been a great success so far). It would earmark marijuana taxes for research and public education designed to discourage juvenile use.
But recognizing a problem isn’t the same as solving it. Legalization would likely produce a surge of dope smoking among teenagers who now avoid it simply because it is stigmatized as illegal.
Kids notice what adults consider acceptable, and not all of them are hell-bent on rebellion. Federal data suggest that most adolescents either avoid alcohol and drugs, or only experiment with them.
Of those who’ve gotten in deep, roughly twice as many drink as smoke marijuana (or drink and smoke marijuana). Marijuana is easier to conceal, easier on the body and probably as easy to come by.
Some of that difference can be explained by perceptions of what is legal among their elders. Legality will inevitably make marijuana more attractive to youth. Mere advertising campaigns aren’t likely to counteract that effect – especially since marijuana marketers will be doing their own advertising under I-502.
The initiative also wouldn’t shut down the black market or the drug cartels, as its supporters hope. For example, sales would still be forbidden to those under 21 – but does anyone believe that dealers will stop selling to them?
There may be ways to legalize or decriminalize marijuana for adults without creating a wider snare for juveniles. It would be nice if I-502 could do that. It’s likely to have just the opposite effect.