As America Races Toward Marijuana Legalization, How Can we Protect Youth? | Opinion

Making a case against the legalization of recreational marijuana use in the United States seems almost naive at this point. As of this month, about one in three Americans live in a state where recreational use is legal, as 15 states have already legalized the drug and many more are moving in that direction. Two in three Americans support marijuana legalization.

As public health professionals, policymakers and advocates on both sides of the legalization debate scour the available data, each finds statistics that handily support his or her stance. But with more than 30 years of experience in the field of substance use and addiction, we know precisely where the focus must be as the pro-legalization drumbeat pounds on: our nation's children, teens and young adults. For young people, too much is at stake to accept marijuana legalization as a foregone conclusion.

Maybe if the health and wellbeing of so many young people—the population to which we devote all our work—weren't hanging in the balance, we would leave it alone. But the research is clear that marijuana use during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood—while the brain is still developing—is unhealthy and potentially dangerous. Even proponents of legalization do not argue this point.

Teens who use marijuana are at least twice as likely as adults to become addicted. Early use not only increases a child's risk of addiction, but ample evidence demonstrates that it also increases the likelihood of other substance use and a range of cognitive and mental health problems. We see these statistics play out every day in calls to our helpline; concern about a child's marijuana use is the main reason families reach out to us for help.

Man smoking marijuana
Man smoking marijuana MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP via Getty Images

What does this have to do with legalization? National data indicate that in all states that have legalized recreational marijuana, rates of first use among adolescents are higher than the national average for the age group. A long-term study tracking youth before and after marijuana became legal in their states found that 10-to-20-year-olds were about seven times more likely to report marijuana use and three times more likely to report alcohol use following legalization, even when controlling for other relevant factors. A recent study in California found a 23 percent rise in marijuana use among teens following legalization, and the increase was sharpest among younger teens. Esteemed national medical societies, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, consistently voice concerns about the adverse consequences of legalization for kids. Young people today face enough impediments to a healthy and fulfilling adulthood; they surely don't need yet another obstacle in their path.

But what about all the young people thrown in jail or burdened by criminal records because of marijuana possession or use? Given our firm commitment to addressing addiction as a health issue rather than a moral or criminal one, we strongly support decriminalization of marijuana use and possession. We believe that a "war on drugs" has no place in our society. If we're going to fight a war, it should be against stigma and efforts to profit off of the health of our youth, not against people who use drugs.

Still, we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes we've made with alcohol and nicotine. When an addictive substance is legal, it influences perceptions of safety, brings on moneyed interests, leads to aggressive marketing to youth and results in significant health problems. We must acknowledge that marijuana legalization is equivalent to commercialization, and that the health of children is at stake.

With this in mind, we strongly urge state governments considering reforming their marijuana laws to base their decisions on science, not on public pressure or business interests, and to carefully consider how past regulations have succeeded or failed to protect youth from legalized substances. As with any regulatory decision that affects public health, we must prioritize our collective responsibility to protect the health and happiness of children, adolescents and young adults.

The majority of the problems we face due to marijuana's illegal status can be ameliorated through decriminalization and common-sense reforms that allow researchers to explore the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis without compromising young people's health. Decriminalization, coupled with smart policies and effective prevention and treatment, will help address justifiable concerns about racial inequities and harsh drug laws without creating a profit incentive that harms the public health, and especially kids.

Linda Richter, Ph.D. is Vice President of Prevention Research and Analysis at Partnership to End Addiction.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.