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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

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?

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.

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.”

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

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
. Really.

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.”

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).


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