In Our View: Marijuana and Minors

Educating youth even more important, with Washington law going into effect

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A recent survey released by the National Institutes of Health serves as a reminder of the need for diligence as Washington moves toward legalized marijuana.

The NIH 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey measured drug use and, perhaps more important, attitudes among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the United States. It found, among other items, that 12 percent of eighth-graders reported using marijuana in the past month, and that 6.5 percent of high school seniors reported using the drug daily. But perhaps the most interesting and alarming number to come from the study is this: Only 39.5 percent of 12th-graders thought marijuana is harmful, compared with 44.1 percent who felt that way in the 2012 study.

This is an inevitable result from weakening societal opposition to the drug. Some 19 states plus the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana over the years, and in 2012 Washington and Colorado approved recreational use of the drug for adults. Washington voters, in fact, approved Initiative 502 with 56 percent of the vote, demonstrating how the stigma surrounding marijuana has lessened over the years, and how the public had come to view efforts to enforce marijuana laws as ineffective.

While society's view of marijuana has changed over recent decades, the operative word throughout this discussion is "adult." Washington approved recreational use for those older than 21, and the state has developed safeguards to try to limit use by minors. Officials have developed a system with the goal of tracking marijuana from "seed to store"; they have developed rules preventing operations within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, game arcades and other places where children and teens congregate; and they have placed limits on advertising with the goal of inhibiting marijuana use by those younger than 21.

Strict enforcement of -- and adherence to -- these rules will be crucial if Washington's experiment with legalization is to be successful. The Obama White House has indicated it will not use stricter federal laws to trump Washington's law, but there is no guarantee that this administration or future administrations won't step in. If Washington has an ongoing problem with minors gaining access to marijuana, that could provide impetus for federal involvement.

That is one legal reason for Washington to be diligent in enforcing rules to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors. More important, however, are the moral reasons. A 2012 study indicated that marijuana use by adolescents leads to vast and long-lasting declines in cognitive ability, but the declines were evident only if heavy marijuana use began before the age of 18. "The effect of cannabis on IQ is really confined to adolescent users," lead author Madeline Meier said. "Our hypothesis is that we see this IQ decline in adolescence because the adolescent brain is still developing and if you introduce cannabis, it might interrupt these critical development processes."

Society might have difficulty convincing the typical teenager of that, yet education must be part of the process. Americans are moving toward greater and greater acceptance of marijuana, but that doesn't mean the drug is harmless. Society places limits on alcohol use by minors, limits driving ages, and has minimum ages for marriage and work and any variety of activities. Just because something is legal for adults doesn't mean it is a proper endeavor for children, although there are no foolproof safeguards to prevent such activities.

In the end, the key is for parents and mentors to impart their values to children and teens. The attitudes of the adults close to them will be the largest factor in whether an adolescent chooses to use marijuana.