Marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized in 17 states and the District of Columbia, with Maryland joining the list in mid-April. Twenty-one states allow marijuana for medical use. Not to harsh anyone’s mellow, but it may be an appropriate time to bring back a useful verb to associate with marijuana use: stigmatize.
What’s unhealthy about this trend is that it coincides with a declining awareness of marijuana’s dangers—especially among young people. Less than 40 percent of high school seniors think marijuana use poses a great risk, down from 55 percent in 2003. Cigarettes are dangerous, more and more adolescents have come to realize, but they don’t believe marijuana is. (In fact, both are unhealthy.) That young people could be so wrong about a drug that more than a third have used makes it clear: In their drive to roll back laws against marijuana and for the revenue that undoing prohibition would raise, states are inadvertently stoking a serious public-health problem.
Marijuana poses a great threat to the still-developing brains of teenagers. Steady use can bring lasting impairments in memory, intellectual functioning, and emotion control. Marijuana use has been linked to depression, anxiety, even psychosis. Smoking pot once a week or more appears to actually change the size and shape of certain brain regions in young people. One in six teenage users becomes addicted to marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. With dependence comes every sort of social trouble: isolation, failure at school and work, often profound unhappiness.
Both Colorado and Washington, the two states that have legalized marijuana for adults, have rules to keep minors away from it. Sales to them are punishable by steep fines and jail terms. And various limits on advertising exist. Nevertheless, more teenagers in these states are expected to use marijuana than they did before it was legalized.
Such restrictions, while essential, do nothing to educate kids or their parents about the risks marijuana poses to still-growing brains or to inform adult users about the dangers of overuse. The states that have legalized or plan to legalize marijuana for adults should direct tax revenue from those sales to public-education campaigns, as Governor John Hickenlooper wants to do in Colorado. Hickenlooper would also spend some of the money on research into marijuana’s effects on pregnant women.
Colorado collected $2 million in taxes in January alone. As with all sin taxes, states will have to balance the competing goals of raising revenue and influencing behavior. It is not hypocritical to use money from taxing a product to discourage its use; states do it now with cigarettes and alcohol, for example.
Marijuana, like alcohol, must be sold and used responsibly. As states make it easier for the public to get marijuana, they are obligated to protect their residents from its harms.