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Marijuana Reforms: Are the Kids Alright?

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As Virginia’s legislature considers a bill to decriminalize marijuana, some critics worry that doing so will send the wrong message to kids who may already view the drug as harmless, and the prospect of legalization sends some parents into a panic. 

Maryland, North Carolina and the District of Columbia have ditched criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and State Senator Adam Ebbin thinks it’s time for Virginia to do likewise. 

“Marijuana is not the same kind of threat as other drugs are.  Roughly 25 million Americans smoked marijuana in the last year, and our public policy needs to reflect that reality rather than deny it.”

Instead, more than 20,000 people a year are being arrested in the Commonwealth for possession.  That’s okay with Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.  She’s not sure decriminalization is a good idea, worries that it could lead more teenagers down the path to dangerous drugs, and thinks pot is being legalized for the wrong reasons.

“In some cases it’s looked at as an economic development opportunity – an opportunity to legalize something that farmers can grow and businesses can sell, but there’s always unintended consequences in everything you do.  Is marijuana a gateway drug to harder drug use?  Very possibly so.”

‘Or not,’ says Susan Weiss, a psychologist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“People tend to use marijuana before they use other illicit drugs, but that’s probably because it’s much more available, and it’s the drug that people are more likely to come in contact with, and the same argument can certainly be made that nicotine and alcohol would be gateway drugs to other drug use.”

And Jon Gettman, a professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University and a long-time advocate for liberalizing marijuana laws, contends making weed illegal puts kids at increased risk for trying more dangerous stuff.

“When teenagers go to the illegal market to buy marijuana, the people selling them marijuana also will expose them to things like cocaine, and Oxycontin and methamphetamines and so forth.” 

But does legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana make it more available to kids?  That was a concern for the National Institute on Drug Abuse which routinely surveys teens? Staffer Susan Weiss cites the latest poll in concluding liberalized laws have not increased access.

“It doesn’t break out the information by state, but overall we did not see an increase in marijuana use this year, which was heartening to us.  We were very concerned about it, because not only have a few states legalized it, but on top of that all the discussion about legalizing it or allowing it for medical use we know is changing the perception of kids.  We know that they’re seeing less and less risk associated with use, and usually when  risk goes down, use goes up, but we haven’t seen that this year.”

Even before the drug was legalized in Colorado and Washington state, about half of students surveyed nationwide said marijuana was easy to get, and proponents of legalization argue it would be better to sell pot from carefully regulated shops, to assure that buyers are 21.  Again, Jon Gettman.

“Making marijuana illegal just doesn’t work as far as controlling the market, keeping it away from kids and reducing social costs.”

On the flip side, legal bans on pot have created a hardship for some teens, children and adults who have medical conditions that could be treated with drugs derived from the cannabis plant.  In our next report, we’ll look at the prospects for legalization of medical marijuana. 

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