Blog Post

The Country's Youth are Safer Under a System of Marijuana Regulation

Christopher Soda
A serious concern surrounding marijuana legalization is risk to the youth.
This topic surfaced in the audience question segment at Aspen Institute recently, when Ethan Nadelmann, DPA's executive director debated Asa Hutchinson, former head of the DEA, on whether pot should be legal. 
Last April, at a hearing with the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) pleaded for an urgent response from the Justice Department on Colorado and Washington’s marijuana legalization. 
"Kids need clear messages and I'm afraid we're not sending them one," he asserted.  Harris implored a quick decision “because children are dying from drugs, he says. “It is a scourge.” 
Such hyperbole continues despite not confirmed one death from marijuana.
Groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) also paint a similarly grim picture.
Hutchinson spoke of cuts made to drug education (D.A.R.E.) and implied this decreased funding for anti-drug education puts kids at greater risk for use and associated harms.  But he didn’t address the efficacy of this type of education.  After a legion of reports done in the ‘90’s, it was concluded DARE and similar programs does not work.  
Consequently, in 2001, it was placed in the category of "Ineffective Primary Prevention Programs" by the Surgeon General. (For information on a Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs, check out Safety First, by DPA’s Marsha Rosenbaum).
The fact that groups like SAM and Hutchinson continue to use this language when discussing marijuana shows they really don’t have any other good reason to maintain prohibition. 
Drug prohibition hasn't made kids safer. Furthermore, if children receive bad information, they’re left worse-off than if they had no information whatsoever. 
We see this in every instance where unscientific information is force-fed to children. States that teach abstinence-only sex education have the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies and STIs. 
The best way to protect kids from the negative effects of any risky behavior is to take a harm reduction approach and give facts. It’s the only way to empower them to make the right choices. 
We’ve seen this approach work in Portugal.  After a decade since all drugs were decriminalized, a study of its impact was conducted and reported in the British Journal of Criminology.  One of the chief results was a decrease in teenage drug use. 
Nonetheless, Rep. Harris is right in some respect—there is a scourge among teenagers and it does involve drugs.  
According to the NHSA and the CDC, accidents account for over half of all teenage deaths, and motor vehicle fatality causes most deaths within that respective category, a third of those fatalities involving alcohol. Alcohol remains the substance most widely used by today’s teenagers, killing more young people than all illicit drugs combined. 
So Harris is partially correct: there is a scourge that’s killing our children, however it has nothing to do with marijuana.  This is not to say kids should be smoking marijuana, let’s be clear, but it’s not a substance that’s killing anyone.
What’s of greater concern, Nadelmann noted at AI, is rise in accidental drug overdoses. 
Let's stop playing politics, and start to address the actual danger, and evidence-based causes of death amongst young people.