Thinking About the Children

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.


  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Gotta protect the children and free enterprise! Keep maryjane illegal and repeal regulations prohibiting sale of cigarets within 1,000 feet of a school! And if a kid rolls up a wad of paper to look like a toke, expel him from fourth grade and make him serve six months in juvie! Gotta keep the money coming in for those private juvenile prison contractors! The referral fees they pay to juvenile court judges keeps the local economy afloat!

  2. 2

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Hillary Transue is a teenage victim of Republican privatization ideology. She was 14 years old when she posted “a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school which “stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.” Transue was sent to prison for 3 months by a corrupt judge who was being paid by a private prison contractor to keep its juvenile detention cells full. Free speech? What free speech? She’s lucky the Republicans didn’t sentence her to being stoned (double entendre intentional in order to keep this post on topic).

  3. 3

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    So, in these budget-strapped times, how much more taxpayer money are Republicans going to waste on sending people to prison for smoking a joint? It’s all a matter of priorities. They have plenty of (public) money to spend on wars, mercenaries, and private prison contracts. But public workers have to give up their collective bargaining rights because, well, because they vote for the wrong party.

  4. 4

    Jesse spews:

    There are many great reasons to legalize cannabis, but keeping it out of young people’s hands isn’t one of them. It’s silly to pretend that consensual, recreational intoxication is something young people need to be “protected” from by a government that somehow knows their interests better than they do themselves.

    Teenagers across the world do just fine when they’re allowed to drink in their teen years. Where do we get this idea that American teens suffer from some unique developmental disability that requires us to have the highest drinking age in the world? As long as we’re getting realistic about the relative safety of pot, isn’t it also time to get realistic about the ability of young people to engage in responsible use?

  5. 5


    I think it’s fairly well-established that people who begin using mind-altering substances earlier on in life are more likely to develop problems as they get older, but it’s still a minority of the overall population of users.

    My own personal belief is that the drinking/marijuana age should the day you graduate high school or about age 19 or 20, whichever comes first.

  6. 7

    What do you expect spews:

    @4 I assume you’re including alcohol in that as well? And cigarettes aren’t “suspected” of “potentially” causing cancer, they do…and they’re legal. Hell, you can send you 13 year old to the drug store to buy a bottle of Tylenol…which if you just chow down and eat (the whole bottle) you will die (it will ruin your liver). And it’s legal. WTF. EVERYTHING from cigarettes to aspirin has an effect on the body. How about we just ban the MOST dangerous ones? Crazy talk. Lets keep liquor (and it’s drunk driving and domestic violence goodness legal) and ban pot…sigh.

    WHERE is the argument AGAINST this? This reminds me of the initiative to get rid of the state run liquor stores. Should have been a slam dunk. It passed well in the “liberal” areas (King County) and SHOULD have passed overwhelmingly in rural eastern Washington because this was EVERYTHING they hated…government actually “selling” stuff (the job of private business), banning private businesses from doing something (selling liquor) and big government in general. But they (rural Republicans) voted to KEEP the state run liquor stores. OMG. So much for that ENDLESS babble about small government.

    Similarly here, WHO is arguing for this? The liberals and scientists/smart folks can argue all day long about the facts and science, that vodka and cigarettes are MORE harmful than a marijuana…and the right wing should be against the government telling private citizens what they can do (who needs BIG government interfering in my life). YET…just like the state liquor store issue…it doesn’t seem to get traction even though it SHOULD match up with BOTH sides proclaimed values.

    And the “children”? Keep it away from them they same way you do now (cigarettes, liquor). Right NOW 15 year olds have MUCH greater access to marijuana than I DO, so it’s kind of a retarded argument from the go.

  7. 8

    Jesse spews:

    @5: I don’t doubt that, but the same argument can be made for users of any age: people who smoke pot are infinitely more likely to develop pot-related problems than people who don’t. It’s a slippery slope from group-specific prohibition to general prohibition, because there’s no clear line between, say, a .0001% chance of “problems” and a .0004% chance: how can we argue that the former is acceptable but the latter isn’t? Reformers must be willing to accept that some fraction of users will get themselves in trouble with their use, safe in the knowledge that the overall harm will still be lower under legalization.

    @6: That’s like telling someone who sticks up for labor rights, “You must not run a business.”

    That may or may not be true, but it’s irrelevant unless you start from the position that only employers’ interests matter and labor interests are unimportant — or in this case, that only parents’ interests matter and young people’s interests are unimportant. But that position is incompatible with the call to “focus on what’s best for young people”.

    @7: Yes, I’m including alcohol as well. If German teens can handle beer, so can American teens.

  8. 9

    King Max the First spews:

    After reading your post, I now doubt you have kids either.

    There is not a responsible parent alive(notice I said responsible) that would vote to make it easier for kids to gain access to drugs and booze.

    and you can talk all the shit you want about germany and their drinking laws – german culture is very different from US culture.

    I am starting to wonder if progressives are just plain anti-children….you want to kill them in the womb with no restrictions…you go soft of child predators and rapists….now you want to get them easier access to booze and drugs.

    you guys are fucking nuts…and how shitty must some peoples live be that they obsess over booze and drugs.

    get a life.

  9. 10

    Jesse spews:

    @9: If you want to see “anti-children”, look in the mirror. Passing laws to restrict the rights of young people is anti-youth by definition. You can moan all you want about how you’re saving them from themselves and they’ll thank you one day, but you’re not fooling anyone but yourself.

    And your proposition that only parents are worthy of being listened to about the rights of young people is as silly as claiming that only billionaire CEOs are worthy of being listened to on taxes or labor rights. There are two groups with competing interests here. It’s clear that you don’t give a rat’s ass about what young people actually want, but that certainly doesn’t mean that what’s best for parents is what’s best for youth!

  10. 11

    NPR keeps getting PWN3D spews:


    LOL…how old are you? 19?

    kids/teenagers are for the most part clueless – no matter how much they think they know.

    Im sorry, but if you are the parent of a child or teenager, and you want it to become easier to get them booze and drugs – CPS should step in and take the kids away.

    LMFAO @ “anti-youth”…ONLY a “youth” spouts off such nonsense and bullcrap.

    Hell, lets just booze up our 11 year olds too! Maybe pass a little weed over to your 13 year old?

    f-ing irresponsible.

  11. 12

    Jesse spews:

    @10: I’m quite a bit older than that, not that it matters.

    I know this might come as a shock, but you actually don’t have to be a teenager to believe that teenagers have rights. You also don’t have to be gay to support gay rights, or female to support gender equality. There were even a few white people who supported giving blacks the vote.

    Bigots like you often have a hard time understanding how anyone else can care about the rights of anyone who doesn’t look exactly like them. Makes sense – if you had the empathy required to understand someone else’s point of view, you wouldn’t be a bigot in the first place.