Legal marijuana: Keep the focus on the kids

The News TribuneJanuary 30, 2014 

Cars drive past a billboard in Newark, N.J., Wednesday advertising the belief that marijuana is safer than alcohol or football.

CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

The biggest issue with marijuana is keeping it out of the hands of kids. The most piddly issue is how it stacks up against alcohol.

The pseudo-debate over alcohol and marijuana has been in the news again, this time fueled by selective quotes from an interview with President Obama. Asked about marijuana by a New Yorker interviewer, he at one point said, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

True enough. But “less dangerous than alcohol” is hardly a high bar to clear. In recent years, marijuana advocates have shrewdly used booze as a foil to make cannabis look benign by comparison. Those who invoke the relative dangers of alcohol — now including Obama — are slipping into a talking point designed to make pot seem as healthy as granola.

In Obama’s case, the comment was casual, not deliberate. As the full interview makes clear, he repudiates alcohol as a baseline for drug policy:

“If marijuana is fully legalized, and at some point folks say, ‘Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that?’ If somebody says, ‘We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we OK with that?’”

Lawmakers in Olympia shouldn’t pick up on the mindless alcohol meme as they struggle to make licensed marijuana work in a responsible way in this state.

What they should do is focus relentlessly on juveniles.

People who first use marijuana as young adults tend to either age out of it or use it casually when they are older. It doesn’t work that way for kids, whose brains are still developing and much more susceptible to addiction.

For middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and (sadly) elementary students, marijuana can carry devastating lifelong consequences.

Many studies have found that cannabis use is closely linked to dropping out or doing poorly in school. The research indicates that marijuana users are much more likely than non-users to maintain a D average or lower.

That’s not only because the drug temporarily fuzzes out the kid’s brain and his interest in algebra. Culture is in play. Adolescents who start on marijuana often fall in with a crowd that doesn’t aspire to academic achievement, to say the least. They’re also no strangers to alcohol and other street drugs.

Recent research strongly suggests something worse: Regular pot-smokers who get started early in life lose IQ points over time. They literally get dumber as they get older.

The Liquor Control Board and Legislature ought to be thinking of every possible way — including public education and police campaigns — to ensure that marijuana doesn’t become more appealing or accessible to juveniles now that it’s been legalized for adults.

No, marijuana is not as dangerous as alcohol. But for kids especially, that’s hardly proof of its virtue.

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