The debate over marijuana legalization and kids

cannabis-sativa-plantThe pending ballot battle over a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in California raises a crucial question: would the change expose more children to pot or protect youth from access to the drug by tightening regulations?

Opinion from public officials and advocates is sharply divided as the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act” initiative has qualified for a place on the November ballot. The measure is backed by former Facebook president Sean Parker and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Using and growing marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in the state since 1996, when voters approved Proposition 215. The new initiative would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and over and establish tax rates and regulations.

Shaun Rundle, government affairs and public safety specialist for the California Peace Officers Association, said legalization of recreational use could encourage more youth to try marijuana.

“It will create the wrong message with youth,” Rundle said. “It says because it’s legal, it’s a good thing, it’s not harmful.”

The association is also concerned that the initiative doesn’t offer enough controls over who could sell marijuana. For instance, it doesn’t prevent a convicted heroin dealer from applying for a license to sell marijuana.

In Nevada County, where marijuana growing and use is common, officials have testified at public meetings about referrals to Child Protective Services for unsafe living conditions related to marijuana, increased medical emergencies related to the drug and kids being sent home from school because of the smell of pot on their clothes.

“I have a huge concern about recreational use and children simply from the information that we’ve been gathering,” said Nevada County Supervisor Dan Miller. “I think recreational marijuana really ignores the negative effects and consequences it has on children.”

Humboldt County, another popular site for marijuana growing, has also experienced a lot of problems with marijuana and youth – particularly with pot-infused edibles like cookies and candies. Eureka Police Capt. Brian Stephens recalled one incident in which four kids at a high school had to be taken away by ambulance because of a reaction to marijuana brownies someone brought to school.

Stephens said if recreational marijuana is legalized it will make it harder for parents to keep young people from experimenting with pot.

“If we take away the stigma that marijuana is illegal and you’re going to jail (if you use it), we’ll see a spike immediately in children who want to explore the effects of marijuana,” he said.

According to the 2014 report “Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado” prepared by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, legalization has had a negative impact on youth. As one example, the report sites that drug-related school suspensions and expulsions in the state increased 32 percent from the 2008-09 school year when medical marijuana commercialization began to 2012-13 when recreational marijuana was legalized. The vast majority were for marijuana violations.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed its opposition to legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use based on harmful effects to children and adolescents. “For adolescents, marijuana can impair memory and concentration, interfering with learning and is linked to lower odds of completing high school or obtaining a college degree,” the organization said in a statement. “It can alter motor control, coordination and judgment, which may contribute to unintentional deaths and injuries. Regular use is also linked to psychological problems, poorer lung health and a higher likelihood of drug dependence in adulthood.”

But those who support legalization of recreational marijuana say no one is in favor of more youth access to the drug. Patricia Smith, Nevada County chairwoman for medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, stresses that legalization would only apply to adults, not youth. “People think that when it’s legal it will be everywhere and anywhere,” said Smith. “That’s not going to be the case. It will be tightly regulated.”

She points out that people will not be allowed to grow it anywhere they like. Just as there have been “dry” counties that prohibit alcohol sales, there will still be marijuana-free counties even if statewide legalization of recreational use is passed.

“Everything will be traced seed to sale with dates and labels on it,” she said. “I think it will offer the safety everyone has been asking for.”

Marsha Rosenbaum, director emerita of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the “just say no” approach hasn’t worked and needs to change.

Rosenbaum created the “Safety First” booklet (“a reality-based approached to teens and drugs”) and was co-chair of the youth education and prevention working group on Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy.

She believes the Adult Use of Marijuana Act will take drug deals out of the street and into regulated businesses. State-regulated marijuana dispensaries will check to make sure customers are over 21, she said. “Street drug dealers don’t ask for ID cards.”

Under the initiative, kids who do get caught using marijuana will be referred to treatment, a drug education course or community service rather than the criminal justice system. Plus, a portion of the tax revenue from marijuana sales will go to drug education and youth treatment programs.

“It’s consciously designed to help young people and to keep them out of trouble- not just with marijuana but with the criminal justice system,” Rosenbaum said. “I’m so enthusiastic about the legalization initiative. I think across the board, it will help.”

It’s important to put concerns about marijuana use into a greater context of substance use in general, said Jane Wilson, section manager of Sonoma County Family, Youth and Child Services. She has seen problems come up in her county such as stoned parents not taking good care of their children.

But substance abuse of any kind can impair parenting including abuse of legal drugs like alcohol or prescriptions like Xanax, she said. “I’m concerned about all drugs,” she said.

She also pointed out that there are harm reduction models in substance abuse that call for implementing policies that limit the damage that can come from drug abuse. “Some say isn’t it better to use pot than meth or pot than heroin?”

In any case, if recreational marijuana use is legalized statewide, Wilson believes there should be a public health campaign to warn youth and adults about the dangers of the drug as there have been with smoking. With legalization, she said, the question will be: “How do we make it safe?”

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