Commentary: Legalization of Marijuana and the Impact on Children

In many state legislatures around the country, or by ballot (direct voter) referendum, important decisions are or will be made as to legalization of marijuana in some form. Before voters cast their ballots, or their elected officials decide, think about what will happen to children if marijuana becomes accessible to adults, much like alcohol.

California is one example. There, proponents are collecting signatures for one of four initiatives headed for California’s 2012 ballot to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for recreational use. The Regulate Marijuana like Wine Act of 2012 will legalize the drug and regulate it like alcohol.

Science reveals that the brain develops throughout adolescence and does not mature until ages 22 to 23 for young women, 24 to 25 for young men. Also, the younger kids are when they start using addictive drugs, the more likely they’ll become addicted. Children who start drinking or smoking pot at age 14 or before are eight times more likely to become addicted to alcohol, six times more likely to become addicted to marijuana than those who start in their 20s, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

If California is going to regulate marijuana like alcohol, how good a job does the state do at preventing underage drinking? We can anticipate how many California kids will smoke legal pot tomorrow by asking how many drink legal alcohol today, despite a legal purchase age of 21. The answer is terrible: alcohol use is double that of marijuana use among the state’s 5th and 7th graders and nearly double that of 9th and  11th graders, according to the 2008-2010 California Healthy Kids Survey.

Worse, the number of 7th graders who started using alcohol at age 14 or before is more than three times greater than the number who began smoking pot at those ages. For 9th graders and 11th graders, twice as many started using alcohol as marijuana during childhood. The actual numbers are staggering: one-third of California’s 7th graders (29 percent) and half of its 9th graders (47 percent) are at risk of becoming addicted to alcohol before they reach the legal drinking age because they had access and started drinking as children.

These statistics may be the same, or worse, in any state in the nation. 

Keeping drugs illegal prevents commercial industries from emerging, ones that are free to advertise and market to increase consumption and free to target children, a given percentage of whom will become addicted—and lifetime customers. We’ve been there, done that with alcohol and tobacco, whose business models depend on addicting children to replace users who die from tobacco- and alcohol-related diseases and accidents.

Everyone, Californians included, must get serious about protecting children from being exploited by commercial industries that sell addictive drugs. Much tougher provisions than those governing alcohol and tobacco will be required to force a marijuana industry to keep its hands off kids. Until such provisions are included in legalization initiatives, legislators and voters should reject proponents’ calls to turn another addictive drug into a commercial industry…unless they’re willing to declare war on children.

Sue Ruche is the President and CEO of the National Families in Action (NFIA). In 2010, NFIA launched its But What about the Children? Campaign which calls for 12 provisions to protect children and adolescents that must be in any law that legalizes marijuana.

141 Responses

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    March 4, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    Scapegoating substances, funding huge bureaucracy, and stripping away freedom is no way to help kids learn to control themselves and live healthy and productive lives. Sorry, but we’re not going to see a decline in abuse until we shift our focus from blaming substances and start to take responsibility fro actually raising kids. Sorry, but if a child is abusing drug, slipping into greater dependence, then problems existed prior to MJ that have nothing to do with MJ AND it is important to be brave and face this fact if there is any hope of actually helping them. Blaming substances and advocating to punish strangers for activities that have nothing to do with raising kids well, is not a solution unless you also advocate for a complete authoritarian monarchy.
    I’ve raised two sons who were scholar athletes and are now post grad scientists with homes and families of their own. I would not have had such good results if I spent my time crying for the government to strip other people of their rights. Nor did I once think dealing with drug issues was some other person’s responsibility except mine.

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    January 16, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    News Flash!!! People don’t spend long amounts of time in prison for having a small amount of marijuana…

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    January 16, 2014 at 12:59 PM

    I also think the “falling asleep” arguement is stupid because most kids that smoke don’t fall asleep. I think we should all understand that driving under the influence of marijuana is dangerous as well. What if they fell asleep while driving…

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    January 16, 2014 at 12:58 PM

    I hate it when people say, “I’d rather have my kid do marijuana than alcohol”. I also can’t stand it when people say it doesn’t affect your brain. Are there more harmful drugs? Of course, but that doesn’t mean marijuana is safe.

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    Christopher Ariano

    November 10, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    I considered the situation with marijuana today similar to prohibition. Although I cannot argue that marijuana is not a dangerous drug that should not be in the hands of children, the reality is that children are often able to get marijuana easier than cigarettes or alcohol. In addition, these innocent children if unable to use marijuana will most likely turn to alcohol. I would much rather have my daughter smoke a joint and fall asleep than get drunk and drive or participate in other inappropriate behavior. Marijuana for children and recreational uses is not good, but it’s hard to argue it’s not better than alcohol.

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