To the editor,
Jim Gogek’s commentary (“California Does Not Need Any More Marijuana Users,” April 3, 2009) is built upon several false premises. He writes:
“Alcohol isn’t the most dangerous drug in the world because it’s worse than heroin or cocaine. It’s the most dangerous drug because it’s so easily accessible. … Underage drinking is a big problem because kids can get alcohol so easily. Legal marijuana would mean more access to marijuana. The number of marijuana users would spike, including teens.”
There are several problems with Gogek’s presumptions. One: according to survey data, U.S. children do not have “easy access” to alcohol under legalization. In fact, because the sale of alcohol and cigarettes are regulated by state and federal governments and their use and sale are restricted to those only of a certain age, young people consistently report that it is easier for them to obtain unregulated marijuana than it is for them to access booze or tobacco.
Two: Gogek’s falsely equates drug access with drug use. But if this premise was correct, then far more teens would presently be using marijuana than are now. According to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which has tracked data on teen pot use since the mind-1970s, more than 85 percent of teenagers say that marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy to get.” Troublingly, this percentage has not significantly changed in over 30 years, despite the government’s increased emphasis on marijuana law enforcement, arrests, and interdiction efforts over the past two decades. One study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) even reported that 23 percent of teens said that they could buy pot in an hour or less. That means nearly a quarter of all teens can already get marijuana about as easily and as quickly as a Domino’s pizza!
In short, virtually every teenager can already get his or her hands on cannabis now if they so choose to. Yet, as Gogek points out, despite pot’s easy accessibility, only a small percentage of teens use the drug regularly. Why? Good question. According to investigators at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, “The reason for not using or stopping marijuana use cited by the fewest seniors over the 29 years of data … was availability (less than 10 percent of seniors).” Authors further discovered that the artificially high price of cannabis on the black market, as well as young people’s “concern about getting arrested,” seldom influenced their choice whether or not to use marijuana.
By contrast, researchers reported that young people’s “concern for psychological and physical damage, as well as not wanting to get high, were the most commonly cited reasons for quitting or abstaining from marijuana use.” In other words, it’s not the illegality of cannabis that dissuades teens from using it. Rather, it’s adolescent’s personal like or dislike for the intoxicating effects of cannabis, as well as their perceptions regarding its health effects, that ultimately shape their decision to try marijuana.
But isn’t it possible that legalizing the adult use of a substance that is currently prohibited might change the way some teenagers think about marijuana? It’s possible, but not likely. After all, lifetime use of cannabis by Dutch citizens aged 12 and older is less than half of what it is in America despite that country’s far more liberal marijuana policies. In fact, even in California where certain adults have above-ground access to pot, marijuana use rates among young people have declined at rates far greater than the national average.
Writing on this issue in the forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy, Bruce Simons-Morton (Eunice Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, MD) and colleagues conclude, “The data provide no evidence that strict cannabis laws in the United States provide protective effects compared to similarly restrictive but less vigorously enforced laws in place in Canada, and the regulated access approach in the Netherlands. Given the cross-sectional nature of the research, the data provide no evidence of a causal association between national policies and substance use.”
So if our current prohibitionist policies are not effectively dissuading either access or use, why then are we steadfastly continuing with them?
Authors note: Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML and the co-author of the forthcoming book: Marijuana Is safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (Chelsea Green, 2009). He lives in Vallejo, California.
 Janet Kornblum. “Prescription drugs more accessible to teens than beer.” USA Today. August 14, 2008.
 Collected annual reports from Monitoring the Future. Documents online at: http://monitoringthefuture.org
 CASA Press Release. “National survey of American attitudes on substance abuse XIII: teens and parents.” August 14, 2008.
 Terry-McElrath et al. 2008. Saying no to marijuana: why American youth report quitting and abstaining. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 69: 769-805.
 Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter. 2001. Evaluating alternative cannabis regimes. British Journal of Psychiatry 178: 123-128.
 Marijuana Policy Project. Marijuana Use by Young People: The Impact of State Medical Marijuana Laws. Washington, DC: 2008.
 Simons-Morton et al. 2009. Cross-national comparison of adolescent drinking and cannabis use in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands. International Journal of Drug Policy. (e-pub ahead of print)