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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    smoky robbinson

    July 8, 2013 at 4:54 PM

    Ok I’ve scrolled threw most of the comments so forgive me if some of what i say has been said before. To start off with Marijuana is not physically addictive, meaning that you do not go through withdraws as with many other drugs. Now many people claim that it is mentally addictive; Which is to say that when you smoke say a joint with a few pals you may say to yourself, “wow this feels good” a similar response that your brain may have while running (runners high). when you exercise endorphins are released, similar sensations occur while eating good food riding a roller coaster and many other instances. This being said don’t expect to be able to control how much you smoke if you can’t control how much you eat. However I’m not suggesting that if you have trouble with dieting your going to be a complete stoner with no prospects in life. As i have just talked about dieting I’m going to propose a parallel. When proper dieting is followed the dieter eats healthier foods and less of the food is consumed until they reach a healthy weight as it is not healthy to be either under or over weight; in the case of pot you likely do not have a label on your bag or jar letting you know what exactly is in your pot. This is why it is safest to grow your own or know how the pot you smoke and or distribute is grown. Some people use chemicals to “enhance” there grow this is because they do not know the healthier way to grow or don’t care. For the most part like many other plants as the average gardener knows the plant needs nutrients from the ground and sunlight. If your smoking this type of pot your good as long as whomever you by from is not a jackass and therefor has not added any other drugs to the pot (this has not been a problem for me) as I only have bought from people i trust. If there is something other than good weed in your joint you will feel a tingly sensation in the lips. However in the case of chemicals the difference can be found in the taste if grown right the taste is clean, smooth, and usually fruity, in the case of poorly grown pot the taste will be harsh, rough and likely be followed by much coughing. This is not to say that you’ll never cough when smoking good weed just that the cough will be more pleasant. Ok now to the main issue the youth smoking pot, first let me say that this cannot be completely prevented but if marijuana is regulated like alcohol the quality of what they smoke will be better; also they will be less likely to be offered other substances and or resort to “household highs”, fake weed, bath salts etc. which can be very dangerous extremely unhealthy and addictive. Now parents that I know that smoke are not going to get there kids high until they reach a certain age and only if they ask to smoke this age for me when I have kids will be the same age i began smoking at, 17 and they will not be allowed to smoke if they are doing things I see as unfit ex. doing poorly in school.

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    June 12, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    Cannabis is an herb, not a “drug”. Drugs are made from petrochemicals, hazardous waste, and fungus.

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    Leslie Sirag

    May 2, 2013 at 9:21 PM

    As someone who lived through the ’60s and has now raised 5 “later placed” children adopted from foster care, I suspect that legalizing marijuana & making it available to adults in licensed establishments with ID required will not only make children’s access at least a little more difficult, but will remove some of the thrill of obtaining an “illegal” substance. We’ve spent some time in Holland, where it’s legal, and it’s really no big thrill–you cam go down the street to the shop & buy it if you’re over 18. What was interesting there was that most of the 20-somethings we met would smoke a bit if it was offered, but weren’t all that interested — the thrill was gone.
    I know people who smoke pot more or less constantly (and some who have gotten into harder drugs because of where they have to go to get it) and some who smoke occasionally, or use other forms: I certainly prefer pot smokers to drinkers, both socially and on the road.
    I have known and worked with addicts and alcoholics, and all of them say nicotine is the hardest addiction to end. Hardly anyone chain smokes pot, and it can be ingested in other ways, so it will probably not produce nearly the lung damage cigarettes do. Whether it will reduce nicotine dependence is something I don’t think we can predict, but that would be a positive outcome.
    I certainly don’t advocate a lack of safety for children (or anyone else) but our society seems to have fixated so much on not exposing children to things that might harm them that I think we’re depriving them of the ability to make reasonable decisions about risk, and banning marijuana because it might cause them harm is another knee-jerk overreaction. What I know as a parent is that, once your child goes to school, they are subject to other influences. You can maintain communication and try to protect them from danger, but what they need is the skill to analyze information and make informed decisions. Of course this should increase as they mature, but your best shot as a parent is to help with that–there’s no way you can keep them safe with ignorance and prohibitions.

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    Jerry Epstein

    March 1, 2013 at 10:35 PM

    People use more alcohol by far than any other drug.
    The reason is that alcohol is the most popular drug in human history. Check Bible for references.

    Alcohol is legal for two reasons.

    First it is more popular than other drugs, not less dangerous.
    Second, Prohibition was a disaster. My grandparents
    raised my parents wnem n heroin and coaine were leagal and heavily advertised including endorsements from the Vatican under two popes. . Alcohol was a much greater problem.

    My siblings were born during alcohol Prohibition. My parents soon realized that alcohol with Al Capone was much worse than alcohol when it was legal.

    If you could lose the hang up on specific drugs you would see that prohibition doesn’t work and creates more misery with any drug.

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    Jerry Epstein

    March 1, 2013 at 4:16 PM

    I think it is you who have completely missed the point.

    First, youth addiction to hugely advertised alcohol has been surpassed by marijuana addiction, per NSDUH:

    Figure 7.5 Alcohol and Illicit Drug Dependence or Abuse among Youths Aged 12 to 17: 2002-2011

    As with all drugs, they begin primarily with “free from family and friends”

    Second, I have no objection to banning ads for marijuana (although I think it doesn’t matter if GOOD ACCURATE education happens). BUT
    if you want reasonable restrictions you are cutting your own throat by not targeting government interference. Were it not for those who believe as you do, we would have had a controlled system as suggested by NAS “An Analysis of Marijuana Policy” 40 years ago. (which suggested a ban on ads as a possibility along with numerous other controls.)

    Instead the public has caught up with the absurdity of marijuana prohibition and passed laws with federal interference rather than cooperation. Step in now to help us get more optimum laws in other states which will surely follow.

    Lancet wrote in 2005:
    “The Lancet does not endorse illegal drug use, but we believe that the cloak of secrecy shrouding those who use illicit substances is the most destructive feature by far of the cultural condemnation of recreational drug use.”

    No alcohol problem = rare problem with any drug:
    Youths aged 12 to 17 who were heavy drinkers in 2010. (i.e., consumed five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days) were 14 times as likely to have used an illegal drug in the past month compared those who were not current alcohol users: 70.6 percent to 5.1 percent

    Finally, we are maxed out — addiction is about people and not drugs. Start trying to help the young before the fact — it is mental heath before a drug is ever used and not ads that matter.

    Change your target please.

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