On Marijuana Prohibition and Protecting Young People
Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story on the emerging support for marijuana law reform, including a recent Gallup poll that found 44% of Americans support taxing and regulating the substance like alcohol. The article is a very good one overall and worth a read for anyone who is interested in an overview of the changing politics of this issue.
There is one point in the article, however, that exemplifies a primary stumbling block to reform on this issuebut that I believe is premised on a flaw in reasoning. After summarizing the trend toward reform, the WashPo piece explains that:
Anti-drug advocates counter with surveys showing high school students nationwide already are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco — and that the five states with the highest rate of adolescent pot use permit medical marijuana.
(As an initial matter, while adolescent marijuana use may be high in some states with medical marijuana laws, teen use rates have always been high in those states. In other words, there is nothing to indicate that the medical marijuana laws have led to higher use rates and, in fact, studies that have looked at the issue have found that medical marijuana laws have not led to increases in teen use.)
The claim that marijuana prohibition is the best way to protect teens from accessing the substance is, of course, not a new one. And, for what it’s worth, I readily agree that preventing teens from having access to drugs and falling victim to drug abuse is of paramount importance is designing any drug policy (including alcohol and tobacco policy.) The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence that, at least for a widely available substance like marijuana, prohibition does anything to achieve this goal. Indeed, a close read of the above quoted paragraph should give anyone who thinks marijuana prohibition is necessary to protect kids some reason for pause. The Washington Post tells us that surveys show high school students nationwide already are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco. Wait a minute. The last time I checked, tobacco is perfectly legal. And yet, we’ve seen dramatic decreases in both teen and adult use of the substance over the past years (with teen use of tobacco now at or near record lows [warning, .PDF].) Meanwhile, year after year, more teens say it’s easier for them to buy marijuana than beer (which, last I checked, is also legal).
To many, the idea that taxing and regulating marijuana may actually be more effective at reducing teen use and access than prohibition may seem counterintuitive. But, I think this is only so if one takes the view that prohibition is the ultimate in control. If one begins from that premise, then legalization is the abdication of control and will surely lead to wild increases in use. In reality, at least for a widely available and relatively easy to manufacture substance like marijuana, regulation can give society much greater control than prohibition. In our current prohibition regime, the market for marijuana goes completely unregulated. It is just as easy (if not easier) for a 15 year old to buy marijuana as it is for an adult. Indeed, it is just as easy for a 15 year old as it is for an adult to sell marijuana. In short: drug cartels don’t ask for ID but well regulated businesses do.
Of course, the trade-off to abandoning prohibition is that regulation would almost surely increase adult access to marijuana. There is also a danger that, if advertising were not well regulated, advertising campaigns targeted at teens could lead to an increase in teen demand and counteract the benefits we might gain from being able to regulate sales through age limits and the like. (Think back, for example, to tobacco advertising that targeted young people.) In other words, the devil is in the details. One thing that I think is clear, however, is that prohibition has not been effective at keeping marijuana out of the hands of young people and that there is certainly no reason to think it would be more effective than a well designed tax-and-regulate system.