Back in November 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults. These bold statements by the voters of Colorado and Washington have incited unexpected push back, most notably from former Rhode Island Congressman, Patrick Kennedy.
Kennedy seems to fear that the legalization of marijuana will increase the chance that children such as his own, born into families with extensive histories of alcohol and drug addiction, will succumb to drug abuse. He recently formed a group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) to fight against ending marijuana prohibition.
Kennedy, who has struggled with drug misuse in the past, joins the vast majority of parents nationwide who want to protect their children from the potential harms of alcohol and other drugs. Still, his support for continued marijuana prohibition is not only impractical and expensive, but counterproductive to adolescent health and well-being.
Decades of government-commissioned and academic studies overwhelmingly affirm that a decrease in marijuana penalties does not lead to an increase in consumption or affect adolescent attitudes toward drug use (NORML). Moreover, a 2007 Columbia University study found that despite decades of severe drug policies, US teens report finding it easier to buy marijuana than beer. This is largely due to the law restricting alcohol sales to those 21 and over. Since Colorado and Washington have incorporated this same age requirement into their bills, legalization should essentially make it harder for young people to obtain marijuana.
Along with incorrectly fearing that legalization will lead to increased juvenile consumption, Kennedy’s anti-marijuana campaign actually harms children more than marijuana control and regulation. While at least 100 million Americans report having used marijuana, the primary victims of harsh marijuana laws continue to be young people.
By virtue of receiving a criminal record for marijuana possession, many juveniles are unnecessarily barred from benefiting from a host of opportunities and support programs. For instance, states can permanently ban individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving Food Stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This law affects an estimated 135,000 children.
Moreover, those who supervise federally assisted housing have the authority to deny housing to an entire family when any household member uses controlled substances or is convicted of a drug-related crime.
People with drug convictions are also denied federal financial aid for higher education. Alongside these official sanctions are the unofficial consequences of prohibition such as the negative effect that a criminal record can have on an individual’s employment prospects. These collateral consequences are devastating and can permanently hinder a young person’s personal, educational, and professional success.
Prohibition also makes marijuana use more attractive to many juveniles who actively seek the thrill of rebelling against accepted mainstream conventions. In other words, some young people find marijuana use appealing simply because it is illegal.
Anti-marijuana policies consume a fair portion of law enforcement resources while drawing police officers away from investigating crimes that pose a far greater threat, such as assault, robbery, and murder. A substantial amount of tax-payer dollars are necessary to cover the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating marijuana offenders and funding foster care and social services for the children of those offenders.
Alternatively, marijuana legalization allows state governments to redirect some of these resources to promote proven drug prevention, education, and treatment programs that are significantly cheaper and more effective in reducing drug use. In the eyes of children in families with histories of substance abuse, such vociferous support for drug prohibition likely drips with hypocrisy. Such a “do as I say, not as I do” approach isolates the kids and closes the door to open, honest communication. Such candid discussions provide young people with a safe space to gain autonomy over their own life choices and, more importantly, to seek help if needed.
While I applaud Kennedy’s concerns for his children, keeping marijuana illegal is far more likely to endanger young people – especially those lacking the wealth and connections of a Kennedy.
Sia Henry is a legal intern with the Drug Policy Alliance