The last time UW Professor Roger Roffman wrote a column in the Seattle Times on marijuana legalization, it was a little heavy on concern-trolling and a little light on the science behind the debate. This time around, Roffman gets it much more right:
Proposals to regulate and legalize its use for adults must include careful planning for how children and adolescents, who are more vulnerable to the risks posed by marijuana use, can best be protected.
But a full discussion requires not only that the proponents of change acknowledge the risks of trying a new approach, but also that those opposing change acknowledge the harms of current policies and the potential of alternative strategies. They may find it’s possible to implement a policy that accomplishes both protecting youth and ending the criminalization of responsible adult marijuana use.
A legalization policy should draw from the successes and failures of alcohol and tobacco laws. In the success category, teenage alcohol- and tobacco-usage rates have declined considerably since the late 1970s. Our experience shows that prevention can work and that society can establish community norms, making clear we neither approve nor tolerate underage use. In the failure category, youth are commonly enticed to use alcohol and tobacco via relentless advertising and cheap prices.
Roffman doesn’t offer his opinion on whether or not legalization and regulation will – by itself – be a big step towards keeping marijuana out of the hands of young people. My contention is that it will, and that continues to be one of the biggest reasons I have for supporting the move. He mentions that the “de facto” legalization in Holland didn’t affect usage rates among young people. But I’d contend that the criminal groups controlling marijuana distribution in the U.S. are far more numerous and extensive that what existed in Holland in the 1970s.
On his larger point, though, I’m in full agreement. Drug policy reformers should focus on what’s best for young people, because drug problems tend to be most severe for those who begin their drug use before adulthood. That’s why I find it horrendously counterproductive to treat drug users as criminals – and to criminalize the sale of mild drugs to responsible adults. Both actions end up harming children in different ways, either by limiting opportunities in a misguided attempt to scare people straight, or by putting the control of adult-only drugs in the hands of those who have no incentive not to sell them to underage customers.