Researchers say the legalization of marijuana comes at a hidden cost to our young people
The Biden administration recently declared that no one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana and that individuals convicted of simple possession at the federal level shall be pardoned. This ruling is consistent with the decades of scientific studies that have established the need for serious reform of marijuana policies. Clearly, our nation’s approach to substance use and addiction should always be conceived of through a public health rather than criminal justice lens.
A public health approach also demands that we consider the effects of reforming marijuana laws on the health and well-being of young people and that we ensure such reform is done in a manner that fully considers the bulk of scientific evidence.
Irrespective of where the public stands regarding the decriminalization or legalization of the adult use of nonmedical marijuana, our concern is with the impacts on adolescents, as the loosening of these laws inevitably conveys to them that marijuana is not harmful. In reality, it can be harmful if used during development when it is most likely to impair mental and physical functioning, especially given the intense potency of today’s marijuana.
There is little doubt that decriminalizing the use and possession of marijuana is long overdue. Decades of order maintenance policies that accompanied the drug war decimated communities through mass incarceration, significantly and unevenly affecting people of color due to persistent structural racism. Also, strict prohibition policies had sweeping effects on the availability of medical marijuana and its nonaddictive components, limiting their access for patients with pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases who could otherwise benefit from medicalized marijuana’s ameliorative properties.
In effect, prohibition of marijuana has been a costly failure, contributing to our history of mass incarceration, militarized policing, and disruption of communities and families.
While the benefits of marijuana decriminalization are clear, an increasing number of states are legalizing nonmedical marijuana for adult use and possession — quite a different matter from decriminalization — especially in the U.S., where legalization of addictive substances is invariably tantamount to their commercialization. In Illinois alone, marijuana sales reached $1.5 billion last year. And although these laws are intended to limit legal access to adults, they pose substantial risks to children and teens in the absence of appropriate safeguards.
Research showing a relationship between legalization laws and use of marijuana in adolescents has produced mixed results, with some studies reporting increases and others either not finding increased use or showing more nuanced results. Over the past three years, the pandemic certainly affected teen use and our ability to measure it, so the level of concern about the effects of these policies on adolescent use may not be accurately reflected in the available data. However, evidence of a trend toward increased use is mounting.
What is clear is the dramatic increase in young adult use. Brain science tells us development continues until the late 20s, so marijuana also has the potential to adversely influence young adults’ health outcomes and risk for addiction. Additional studies of the effects of legal permissibility on risks for imminent adolescent use are finding a growing trend toward normalization of use, ease of access, and less likelihood of a belief that marijuana is harmful, despite scientific evidence that use during adolescence is detrimental to physical and mental health.
Indeed, we are already witnessing a growing national trend across all age groups reflective of broader normalization of marijuana use and a significant uptick in several serious negative consequences, such as instances of marijuana-related prenatal exposure, unintentional childhood ingestion and poisoning, mental health problems, alterations in the developing reproductive system, marijuana use disorder, car crashes and other indicators of poor life functioning.
Although these effects are particularly consequential during adolescence, most people are unaware of the many ways that wide access to marijuana products — which are now used in far more potent forms than in the past — can harm young people. In fact, the public receives a great deal of confusing, inaccurate and politically charged rhetoric from both sides of the legalization debate, especially from marijuana industry-funded interests.
As is true of tobacco and alcohol, the marijuana industry’s profit-driven motives are at odds with public health. Correcting misinformation is critical to protecting our youth. Misconceptions about the risk of marijuana use among adolescents are strongly associated with its use, i.e., the more adolescents perceive that the harms are negligible, the more likely they are to partake.
The public deserves to understand how messages we hear are conflating two sets of issues: social justice with decriminalization and medical uses of marijuana with wholesale marijuana legalization. It is these messages that enable the marijuana industry to garner public support and obscure the risks of casual use.
The public deserves to be apprised of the risks to young people of believing marijuana is safe or even beneficial, as well as the negative effects of use during pregnancy on the cognitive development of the fetus and eventually the child.
A science-based public education campaign is urgently needed, in concert with the rollout of marijuana reforms, to provide accurate information regarding adverse consequences and potential benefits of the drug.
Members of the public will then be able to make informed decisions about their own use and how to protect young people from exposure, access and use. And lawmakers will be equipped to formulate legislation that conveys the least harm and most benefit to their constituents who, once informed, will be more receptive to constraints on the manufacture, marketing and sale of marijuana to protect our nation’s youths.
— Diana Fishbein, Ph.D., is a senior scientist and program director in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina and the Director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives. Linda Richter, Ph.D., is vice president of prevention research and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction in New York. Zili Sloboda, Sc.D., is president of Applied Prevention Science International in Ohio.