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Editorial

One toke over the line

The assertion that Prop. 19 is contributing to a rise in teenage marijuana use is unfounded.

December 16, 2010

California, whose initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use drew national headlines this year, is notoriously tolerant of a drug considered an evil weed in some parts of the country. But is our lax attitude creating a school system full of Jeff Spicolis, the iconic California stoner from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"? R. Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration's drug czar, suspects that it is.

After an annual survey of teen drug use nationwide found that marijuana smoking is on the rise among eighth- through 12th-graders, Kerlikowske attributed the uptick to California's Proposition 19 and other states' initiatives to legalize medical marijuana. "Mixed messages about drug legalization, particularly marijuana, may be to blame," he said in a news release. "Such messages certainly don't help parents who are trying to prevent kids from using drugs."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that he has a point. In Los Angeles, where billboards promoting doctors who pass out medical marijuana recommendations are commonplace and green crosses identifying pot "clinics" can be found on hundreds of street corners, cannabis seems as harmless and ubiquitous as nasal spray. It would be surprising if kids weren't influenced by adults' blase attitudes about the drug.

Yet anecdotal evidence is no substitute for rigorous study, and Kerlikowske should have checked such sources as the Congressional Research Service before jumping to conclusions. An April report, issued to advise Congress on whether to loosen federal restrictions on medical marijuana, examined studies comparing teen pot smoking in states with and without medical marijuana laws and found no connection between such laws and drug use. "Concerns that medical cannabis laws send the wrong message to vulnerable groups such as adolescents seem to be unfounded," it stated.

Most studies on the issue were performed about a decade ago, and it's clear that more research is needed on the effects of legalization debates on teen attitudes. Even if a causal connection is discovered, though, it doesn't imply that the solution is to stop discussing legalization — as evidenced by the same National Institute on Drug Abuse survey that prompted Kerlikowske's comments.

Even as teen marijuana use is rising, tobacco and alcohol use is falling, according to the report, which found that 21.4% of high school seniors had smoked pot in the previous month and 19.2% had smoked tobacco — the first time since 1981 that marijuana was more popular than cigarettes. This may indicate that public health campaigns aimed at discouraging alcohol and tobacco use are working, and that similar campaigns aimed specifically at marijuana might be equally effective. There's little evidence that continued criminalization has discouraged teen drug use, but better education might.

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