Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono legalization advocate in Middlebury. This column does not represent the views of any client. You can find him on Twitter at @DaveSilberman.
In opposing H.170, the bill that would remove criminal penalties for growing two cannabis plants at home, opponents of reforming our failed drug laws have been fond of pointing out that Vermont has the second highest underage cannabis use rate in the country. Legalize, they warn, and teen use rates will go up even higher, as we’ll send a message to teens that cannabis is socially acceptable and not harmful. Cannabis use will drive teens mad, the most vocal of these opponents warned in a recent VTDigger commentary, resulting in “psychosis and schizophrenia [and] suicide.” Scary stuff!Never mind that rates of teen use in Vermont are nearly identical to both the national and New England averages. Never mind that every single study on the topic has shown that teen use has not actually increased following legalization in any other state (unless you like your results statistically insignificant). Never mind that teen use rates have held steady nationwide over the past 17 years despite a 15 percent drop in teens’ social disapproval of peer cannabis use, and a near-50 percent drop in teen perception of harmfulness of cannabis use; surely if we keep on talking about these alleged “risk factors” as if they’re meaningful, they’ll become meaningful any day now!
This insistent self-delusion by well-intentioned folks is nothing short of a new “Reefer Madness”, a morality tale substituting fear and guilt for effective prevention strategies. Certainly, teen drug abuse is a serious problem, needing serious solutions. But we are not living in 1936 anymore, and if our aim is to understand what is driving teen cannabis abuse today, and to use that knowledge to improve public health, it is critical that we lay aside our fears, and focus on facts and rationality instead.
Effectively preventing teen cannabis use requires addressing the underlying social and mental health disorders that, when left untreated, cause teens to seek out cannabis as a form of self-medication.
Effectively preventing teen cannabis use requires addressing the underlying social and mental health disorders that, when left untreated, cause teens to seek out cannabis as a form of self-medication. “(P)sychiatric disorders earlier in childhood are strong predictors of marijuana use later on,” according to Washington University psychiatry professor Richard Grucza, whose 2016 study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, explored why it is that teen cannabis abuse — and the socio-psychological problems associated with it – experienced large declines from 2002 to 2013 despite widespread liberalization of drug laws nationwide. Dr. Grucza concluded that if “disruptive behaviors are recognized earlier in life, we may be able to deliver therapies that will help prevent marijuana problems — and possibly problems with alcohol and other drugs, too.”
And therein lies the crux: Rather than trying to reduce underage cannabis use by scaring kids and punishing adults (a tried-and-failed strategy if ever there was one), the data is telling us to treat the underlying problems that lead to cannabis abuse in the first place, and to do so regardless of whether or not legalization goes forward, because punishing adults for responsible use of cannabis does not reduce teen use, and legalizing responsible adult use does not increase it.
So let’s finally move on from the days of “Reefer Madness.” Let’s stop the “scared straight” tactics that have failed for decades to achieve their goals. Instead, let’s allow responsible adults to make informed decisions, and parent their children wisely. Let’s replace the thriving illicit market with a regulated and taxed distribution system, and use the new revenues that system will provide (and the savings from currently wasted police, prosecution and court resources) to improve our prevention and mental health programming for young people, and fund evidence-based solutions that actually work.