Why Make Bad Matters Worse for Our Kids?

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Blog Editor’s Note: This post is the first in our series about Proposition 19.

Next Tuesday, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, which would legalize the use of marijuana. Until recently, this legislation was leading in most polls—a fact that boggled my mind. Why increase the availability of a drug that has already destroyed the lives of countless teens and their families?

According to the latest LA Times poll, Prop 19 is now “trailing badly,” and it appears that many people have seen the light.  Still, 39% of voters are in favor of legalization, a not insignificant figure. And this just doesn’t make sense.

Those of us at Phoenix House who have been working with kids for more than 40 years are troubled by this measure. Not only have we have served more young people than any other treatment provider in California, but the experience of our regions throughout the country have established us as a national authority.  And we’ve seen firsthand the devastation marijuana can cause. This drug is a problem for almost all of the kids we treat; about 76% of our teen admissions nationally list marijuana as their primary drug of choice. We serve some of the most vulnerable teens in the state of California and across the country—kids whose drug use is more likely to lead to addiction. These young people are with us because marijuana has seriously impacted their lives—making it impossible for them to succeed in school, ruining their relationships with their families, and often, leading them to try even more harmful drugs when they seek an even greater high.

Our experience at Phoenix House mirrors national trends.  According to SAMHSA’s Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), almost 80% of adolescent treatment admissions, aged 12 to 17, had marijuana as their primary or secondary drug of choice.  Studies have shown that young people are particularly susceptible to marijuana’s side effects—which include social anxiety and cognitive impairment. Research has linked early onset marijuana use to lower GPA, early school dropout, and lower income at age 29. The drug’s street potency has also increased substantially over the past two decades, and a single joint contains four times as much cancer-causing tar as a filtered cigarette.

When we legalize a drug—thereby increasing access and removing the stigma—it follows that more people will use it.  The idea that we won’t see a rise in teen marijuana use as a result is absurd. And more usage will mean more adolescents addicted, more drugged driving, and other negative consequences.

“But I smoked pot when I was young and I turned out fine,” many legalization advocates tell me. “Even our President used it.”

It’s true that not every kid who tries marijuana will become addicted. Research tells us that about 10 percent of those who try it will get hooked.  However, this doesn’t change the fact that the drug puts young people at risk. And as responsible adults, our job is to reduce the likelihood that our children will engage in risky behavior—not to increase it.

Yes, if Prop 19 were to pass, we’d try to keep the drug out of kids’ hands.  But with rampant underage drinking and cigarette smoking, I highly doubt we could do a better job with marijuana. The last thing our young people need is another legal intoxicant.

These are challenging times for California and Prop 19 supporters argue that legalization of marijuana would improve the state’s plight.  But the bottom line is that the harm this legislation could cause outweighs its potential benefits.  To support Prop 19 without considering what it would mean for the younger generation is both irresponsible and dangerous.

Howard Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House

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  • I wholeheartedly agree, Howard. Most arguments I’ve heard from supporters of legalizing marijuana use are centered around money matters. “People will use marijuana whether it’s legal or not – why not legalize it, tax consumers, and start making a profit out of sales? You know, like cigarettes.” To compare the legal sale of pot to selling tobacco products isn’t a justifiable reason for me; other bad examples of legally selling a harmful substance simply reinforce my opinion. The cigarette industry boomed for decades before we realized just how bad they are for us. With pot, we already know there are dangerous consequences – one of which I believe is the greater risk that pot users will eventually try stronger drugs. To legalize marijuana use is a sneaky way of making us feel more comfortable about drug use. And shame on us for letting greed and the pursuit of wealth cloud our judgment yet again. Selling pot legally is a Band-aid financial fix that will only cost CA more money in the long run after we start seeing more drug related crime because more people are hooked. No matter what, there will always be the “ground level” drug for users. Something that’s “not as bad.” Right now, marijuana is that drug. We climb up another precarious step on that ladder to something stronger if marijuana is legalized.

  • I understand the argument on how marijuana affects children. The fact of the matter is that too many people in the state of California and abroad are dying of violent crimes because of the criminalization of marijuana. Legalization of marijuana is not the worse thing for our children. Obesity, misdiagnosis of children, a decrepit school system and poor housing is the worse thing for our children. Adolescence and children alike are faced with bigger problems then just the effects of marijuana. I worked in addiction/recovery for several years and I learned that the drugs are just the symptom of the problem. The criminalization of drugs does not help the social problems of our society. On the contrary it is adding to the perpetual imprisonment of primarily Hispanics and Blacks. Yes, alcohol and tobacco industries are big contributing culprits of are health care crisis. Furthermore, these substances are proven to be more harmful than marijuana. I think that proposition 19 is long overdue.

  • This article is complete false.

    Maybe your REAL concern is that the majority of your clients that come in for Marijuana, are forced by the state! Maybe your real concern is the loss of revenue? The days of easy money are over.

    End the madness. Vote YES on 19!

  • It is already easier for kids to obtain marijuana than it is for them to obtain alcohol and tobacco products. Proposition 19 would eventually introduce regulation into a market that is currently a complete free-for-all. With our current situation, marijuana is available for sale at just about every high school in the country. It can’t worse than that. We all want to keep marijuana out of the hands of children and teenagers. As a drug treatment professional, you should be more aware than anyone that drug abuse is a problem that should be tackled by families and communities rather than police, courts, and the criminal justice system. Yes, drug abuse damages lives, but people can overcome addictions. It is much harder to overcome a criminal record and conviction.

    Marijuana prohibition is an economically and ethically unjustifiable policy that does not address the need to keep drugs out of the hands of children and teenagers, breeds disrespect for law enforcement, fuels gang and organized crime activity, and denies student loans and educational as well as economic opportunities to people who have been convicted of marijuana possession. A legal, regulated market for marijuana would address all of these issues. Nobody is suggesting that we legalize marijuana use for children and teenagers.

  • we cant just criminalize our problems and expect them to go away. No one who has a problem with the drug and needs help benefits from being fined large amounts of money, being thrown in prison and having all their valuable possessions auctioned off, except the police.

    The “no on prop 19” people are broadcasting their lie/message on the assumption that the law is preventing people from smoking pot in the first place. Do you really think those who spend their lives hunting down and looting the estates of drug lords, want to fight drug addiction? Don’t listen to drug war profiteers.
    Yes on 19, Free Marc Emery

  • Anthony Hanson

    I don’t understand why you would think that keeping marijuana illegal is a solution to 76% of kids already using it. It is illegal now an 76% of your kids are using it clearly its illegality is not an issue for kids. I was a young user myself and I can guarantee that it was pots illegality that made it a gateway drug. My dealers were always more then happy to send me up to the next more harmful drug. I doubt licensed pot dealers would be pushing E. Your opinion also doesn’t fallow the great success Portugal has had with reductions in use especially among young people because it decriminalized drugs. Kids aren’t stupid it doesn’t matter if a drug is legal or not for a kid to do it, but if it were legal we could stop wasting all this money on a failed prison system and ineffective enforcement. your opinion is a failed ideology and an effect of a common and fearful culture. It is also an extremely harmful and races policy that supports an extremely corrupt system of cartels that use their marijuana money to traffic sex slaves, and I would strongly urge you to reconsider your view and do some more research on the effect of prohibition. Just because something is illegal it doesn’t mean we are reducing its use.

  • If reefer madness didn’t exist then there is a good chance that a lot of addicts wouldn’t try harder drugs. The irrational fears presented in this mockumentary caused some cannabis users to ignore warnings of hard and actually dangerous drugs. Much like the boy who cried wolf was eventually ignored when real wolves showed up. Misinformation is the gateway, not marijuana. If we continue to let fear cripple our decision making abilities like a dear in headlights we will end up with the same tragic results. It’s time to end the war on drugs and start a war on ignorance.

  • Your claim that legalized marijuana would cause a surge in teen use rates isnt borne out by the use rates in countries that have legalized its use. Both the Netherlands and Portugal have lower use rates than in the US.

    Your claim that a joint of marijuana contains 4 times as much cancer-causing tar as a tobacco cigarette is deliberately misleading. The insinuation here is that marijuana is more dangerous and more carcinogenic than tobacco is…despite the fact that not one case of lung cancer and not one death has ever been successfully linked to marijuana use in over 5,000 years of known use by mankind. Compare that with over a quarter of a million people dying every year due to tobacco.

    The fact that a lot of teens are in rehab that smoke marijuana (a stigmatized and illegal substance) itself tells us nothing objectively about the effects of the drug or how dangerous it actually is. What it tells us is that a lot of parents and judges have sent a lot of teenagers to rehab programs for using an illegal substance. How many teenagers are in rehab because they checked THEMSELVES in, horrified by an inability to stop using marijuana? I have a suspicion this number would be quite low…compared with the number who are here as a discplinary measure, part of a court order, and/or because their parents are concerned about their use of intoxicants in general at such a young and crucial age.

    Lets be frank here. Marijuana does not “destroy people’s lives.” What it does tend to do (to a good many people, but not all) is demotivate heavy users. Alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription drugs, and opiates “destroy people’s lives”- and some of these things are legal.

    The “gateway” argument is a textbook example of broken logic. Most people who try marijuana never go on to become hard drug addicts. Fact. Pointing out that most hard drug users tried marijuana long before they ever smoked crack is no more to the point than saying that most people in biker gangs learned to drive a car first. Driving a car does not magically lead to owning a motorcycle, and smoking marijuana does not magically lead to becoming a crack or heroin addict.

    You are right to point out that teens are already using marijuana at alarming rates. You are also right to point out that underage drinking and tobacco use are rampant. But that you would want YOUR teenager to be arrested and have a criminal record for these youthful mischiefs, instead of punished as you the parent finds fit or taken to therapy is a bit baffling.

    Our job as responsible adults IS indeed to reduce the likelihood that our children will engage in risky behavior. That is done by spending time discussing these issues with our children in an honest manner, communicating, steering our children towards healthier activities, and forming/maintaining strong family bonds…”parenting,” in short. There are lots of activities we’d like to keep our children away from. Granted. But the question becomes…what does any of that have to do with the right of OTHER ADULTS to use marijuana, drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette, or have sex in the privacy of their own homes if they so choose?

  • You forget to mention all these people are in rehab/counseling because it is court ordered! Not because there is any real need for it. And Def. not because it has lead them to harder drugs. The gateway theory as been proven false. The only real problems with marijuana are the issues caused by being illegal…

  • “”When we legalize a drug—thereby increasing access and removing the stigma—it follows that more people will use it.”
    Increasing access for adults DOES NOT mean that access will be increased for children. On the contrary it will be harder for children to get the drug.

    “This drug is a problem for almost all of the kids we treat; about 76% of our teen admissions nationally list marijuana as their primary drug of choice.”

    One would think with the legality of Alcohol that it would be the primary drug of choice? According to your argument making a drug legal makes it more accessible to minors. Well what you fail to realize is that since marijuana is widely used by adults it is also widely available for children as drug dealers (criminals mind you) do not card. Something that would not be true if the sale was regulated by the government.

    Children find it much more difficult to buy alcohol as its sale is much more controlled by the government.

    So yes, we need to keep marijuana and other drugs away from children. But the way to do that is not by keeping it illegal (and having it widely available to them through drug dealers), instead having the sale regulated by the government will make it much more difficult for children to acquire.

    Vote yes on Prop 19.

  • Howard Meitiner

    Thanks for your comment, Libio. We absolutely agree that the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders is ineffective and wrong. But there’s an important distinction between decriminalization (lessening or eliminating penalties for possession)–which we support–and legalization, which means one can trade, sell, and use the drug openly. We hope you’ll read our forthcoming blogs in this series and continue to contribute to the dialogue.

  • Howard Meitiner

    Thanks for participating in the discussion. We completely agree that the criminalization of marijuana drains resources and only perpetuates the cycle of addiction. We actually recommend decriminalization of the drug, which is already the case in most of the country. What concerns us is legalization, which applies to the trafficking as well as the use of marijuana. We plan to address this issue further in our next blog in this series.

  • Howard Meitiner

    Thank you for your comment. While many teens use marijuana despite the fact that it is currently illegal, we do feel that usage would only increase with legalization. In terms of the experience of other countries abroad, we plan to address this issue in our next blog in this series.

  • It is the little tweaks that create the largest changes.

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