Keep Marijuana Illegal - for Teens

By Clark, Thomas W. | The Humanist, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Keep Marijuana Illegal - for Teens


Clark, Thomas W., The Humanist


Many adults, especially if they hold public office, profess to be alarmed at the increasing prevalence of marijuana use among teenagers. Teens, on the other hand, don't seem particularly worried. The rise in the number of adolescent marijuana users over the last four years has been accompanied by a decline in the risk they perceive of smoking it occasionally. Indeed, some researchers hypothesize that prevafence has increased precisely because the perception of risk has lessened

Compared to marijuana, the use of harder drugs--such as cocaine and heroin--has risen much more slowly over the same period and now seems to be leveling off. Perhaps teens recognize what the National Institute on Drug Abuse has been at pains recently to deny: that there are valid distinctions between soft and hard drugs in addictiveness and potential for harm, and that such distinctions can inform one's choice of psychoactive substance. Marijuana is perceived by many, mostly older, adolescents as no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco and far less risky to use occasionally than crack or heroin.

Teens, in short, are not stupid, and in this case their perceptions are pretty much on the mark. Although certainly not risk free (no psychoactive substances are), marijuana compares favorably with alcohol and tobacco with regard to health hazards and potential for abuse. Consequently, the attempt to tar it with the same brush as cocaine and heroin simply backfires, undercutting the credibility of both the NIDA and beleaguered parents who are asked to instill fear of the "evil weed" into their increasingly skeptical children.

Much is made of pot being a gateway drug that leads to further experimentation and addiction, but as even the NIDA admits, most casual marijuana smokers don't progress to other drugs or become addicts. Except for powerfully and instantaneously reinforcing drugs like crack, heroin, and methamphetamine, it's not the particular substance one encounters that usually leads to addiction. Rather, it's a combination of risk factors--a difficult family situation, peer pressure, poor social adjustment, and being idle after school hours--which makes teenage abuse and dependence likely. If marijuana is a gateway to hard drugs at all, it is most likely due to its illicit status: the purveyors of pot can put your adolescent in touch with the local crack connection.

None of this is to deny that using marijuana has its risks and long-term effects, and its use by developing adolescents should therefore be discouraged and remain illegal. As the disastrous health consequences of cigarette smoking make clear, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana--delta-9-tetrabydrocannabinol (THC)--would best be ingested without inhaling the carcinogenic byproducts of a burning plant. (Marijuana is actually worse than tobacco in that respect.) While not nearly as devastating as chronic alcoholism, the regular and prolonged use of THC may compromise shortterm memory and perhaps other cognitive functions, and preliminary research, although by no means definitive, has also implicated THC as an immune system suppressor. Even though non smoked THC is approved for medicinal purposes, and thus has been found safe and effective for some applications, its recreational use (as for alcohol and nicotine) should remain occasional and restricted to those over the age of twenty-one. Pregnant women should avoid it, and the penalties that now apply to drunk driving should also apply to those who drive under the influence of THC.

Despite its bad official press, marijuana actually ranks lowest in addictive potential of all commonly used sub stances even below caffeine, according to two independent ratings by the NIDA and the University of California. This means that its increased availability following decriminalization for adults would not result, as some fear, in an epidemic of cannabis abuse. Nevertheless, the dangers of dependence should be stressed in health classes, as part of a curriculum that prepares adolescents for making responsible choices about whether and how to use mood altering substances when they come of age. …

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