Drug Czar blames rising teen pot use on medical cannabis laws rather than on the administration’s own failed policies

“If young people don’t really perceive that [marijuana] is dangerous or of any concern, it usually means there’ll be an uptick in the number of kids who are using. And sure enough, in 2009, that’s exactly what we did see,” Kerlikowske told ABC News Radio. “We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine. So it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana.”

So let’s get this straight: California enacted legislation legalizing the physician-supervised use of medical marijuana in 1996 — some fourteen years ago — thus kicking off the national debate that is still taking place today. Between 1996 and 2005, nine additional states enacted similar laws (Alaska, 1999; Colorado, 2000; Hawaii, 2000; Maine, 1999; Montana, 2004; Nevada, 2000; Oregon, 1998; Vermont, 2004; Washington, 1998). Yet, the Drug Czar claims to the national media that this discussion has only been taking place in earnest for “the past couple years”? Does he really think the public is that naive?

Further, the Czar is well aware that throughout this period of time, youth-reported use of marijuana declined across the nation — including in the very same states that enacted medical cannabis access. You can see this year-by-year decline, as documented by the University of Michigan, here.

Others have publicized this decline too. A comprehensive review of the data was compiled by the Marijuana Policy Project in 2008. They concluded: “More than a decade after the passage of the nation’s first state medical marijuana law, California’s Prop. 215, a considerable body of data shows that no state with a medical marijuana law has experienced an increase in youth marijuana use since its law’s enactment. All states have reported overall decreases – exceeding 50 percent in some age groups – strongly suggesting that the enactment of state medical marijuana laws does not increase marijuana use.”

Investigators at the Texas A&M Health Science Center also assessed whether the passage of medical cannabis laws encourages greater recreational use. They too found, definitively, that it does not. “Our results indicate that the introduction of medical cannabis laws was not associated with an increase in cannabis use among either arrestees or emergency department patients in cities and metropolitan areas located in four states in the USA (California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington),” researchers reported in the International Journal of Drug Policy. “Consistent with other studies of the liberalization of cannabis laws, medical cannabis laws do not appear to increase use of the drug.”

In truth, marijuana use rates as a percentage of the overall population vary only slightly among states, despite states having remarkably varying degrees of marijuana enforcement and punishments. Several states with the most lenient laws regarding marijuana possession — such as Nebraska (possession of up to one ounce is a civil citation) and Mississippi (possession of up to 30 grams is a summons) — report having some of the lowest rates of marijuana use, while several states that maintain strict penalties for personal users report comparatively high levels of use. The Drug Czar is aware of this of course — after all, the U.S. government makes available this handy state-by-state map of marijuana use percentages -- yet he is forbidden by his office from ever acknowledging this fact publicly.

But wait, it gets even sillier. One statistic gleaned from the Monitoring the Future study that was not emphasized by the Drug Czar (for obvious reasons) was that more than eight out of ten 12th graders report that marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get — a percentage that has remained constant for three and a half decades! So much for the notion that criminal prohibition is limiting youth marijuana access. It never has and it never will. On the other hand, Kerlikwoske concedes that the regulations and the imposition of age restrictions on alcohol and cigarettes have been associated with a drastic reduction in teens’ use of those drugs. Yet when it comes to the subject of marijuana, the Drug Czar brags that those words are “not in his vocabulary”. Really.

The bottom line: No parent wants his or her child abusing marijuana. But the most effective way to keep this substance out of teens’ hands isn’t through criminal prohibition; it is through legalization, regulation, and public education. So why can the Drug Czar acknowledge the effectiveness of this strategy when it comes to alcohol and tobacco, but turn his back on it entirely when it comes to pot? Simple. In the words of Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and is the co-author of the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (Chelsea Green, 2009).