Rising teen pot use poses challenge to legal sales

The News TribuneDecember 23, 2013 

A marijuana cigarette is rolled for purchase at a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Olympia. Reports show that many teens are smoking marijuana obtained from dispensaries.

STAFF PHOTO

There’s a disturbing disconnect between teenagers’ perceptions about marijuana use and what research says about it – and that could affect how Washington goes about implementing its law allowing pot sales for recreational use.

A new survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse had some good news: Binge drinking and tobacco use is down among teens. But its findings on youngsters’ marijuana use and attitudes about pot are unsettling. Pot use has increased to the point that 12 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds report they’ve used it in the past year; 6.5 percent of 12th-graders and 4 percent of 10th-graders say they smoke it every day.

A much larger cohort – 60 percent of high school seniors – view marijuana use as harmless. But recent studies suggest the opposite: that pot use could be damaging young users’ still-developing brains, affecting memory, decision-making and even IQ levels.

And the effects may be long-term, according to a research team at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Negative effects were found in heavy users two years after they had stopped smoking marijuana. The earlier the subjects started using, the more abnormal the effects looked in comparison to non-users.

Teen attitudes toward marijuana have softened as the drug has gained wider acceptance in society – from being approved for medical use in 19 states and the District of Columbia to legalization for recreational use in Washington and Oregon. The reasoning goes: If marijuana qualifies as medicine and a majority of voters think it’s OK for recreational use, how can it be harmful?

Supporters of legalization argue that selling pot in controlled retail environments, much like how alcohol used to be sold in this state, will make it harder for kids to get the drug. But teens are already getting a lot of marijuana from people buying it as “medicine” from dispensaries. Isn’t it just as likely kids will continue getting pot, but from adults buying it at stores instead of dispensaries?

The challenge for Washington – and those who want to keep marijuana sales legal for recreational use – is that the federal government could pull the plug on retail sales of pot if it finds that kids are getting easy access.

All the effort that has gone into rule-making and setting up the infrastructure for marijuana sales could be for naught if supporters can’t show the feds that at least legalization hasn’t increased underage pot use. That means strict ID checks, aggressive sting operations and attention-getting penalties for adults who provide marijuana to kids.

Society has a stake in keeping some things away from minors, if only to protect their health. That includes tobacco, alcohol – and pot. Marijuana is every bit of a threat as the other two to young people’s health.

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