Generation Weed: What Legalizing Marijuana Means For Our Children
States that have legalized marijuana are engaging in an experiment, and our kids are the lab rats.
This past Election Day, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. joined Colorado and Washington State in legalizing recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older. This seismic shift raises several important questions about what policies are most likely to prevent and treat addiction.
First, addiction is a disease, not a crime, we shouldn’t lock people up for smoking pot. Public policies that treat marijuana use as a public health problem are likely to have a greater positive impact than those that treat it as a criminal justice problem. However, unless policies are carefully designed to prevent and reduce marijuana use and its consequences, including addiction, they could make matters worse.
The people who are most likely to be hurt by legalized marijuana are teens. Addiction is a developmental disorder that starts in adolescence. When teens smoke pot, they are twice as likely as adults to get addicted. In fact, 1 in 6 teens who start smoking marijuana will become addicted. And research suggests that marijuana use during this period of active brain development can cause neuro-cognitive impairment. Early and regular use during adolescence is associated with declines in IQ, executive function, verbal skills, attention and memory. While some of the effects may reverse after long periods of abstinence, some harms may be permanent, especially for early, frequent users. Any change in policy that increases teens’ access to, or use of, marijuana should be avoided.
It is too soon to tell whether legalizing marijuana will increase teen use of the drug. However, we do have plenty of evidence from our nation’s two legal drugs—tobacco and alcohol—that suggests that teens have greater access to, and are more likely to use, drugs that are legal. The number one source of substances for teens is not the corner store or a drug dealer, it’s their friends and families. Legalizing marijuana is likely to increase teens’ access through those sources. The other factor that increases teen use is perception of harm – the lower the perceived harm, the more teens use. Legalizing marijuana sends the message that it’s okay to use the drug. And teens being teens, simply telling them, “this drug is for adults only,” will only make them want to use it more.
Emily Feinstein, JD
Emily Feinstein is Director of Health Law and Policy at CASAColumbia