Marijuana and the Young
When marijuana is legalized, how should use by young people be managed? Almost all would agree that eight-year olds should not wander around smoking a joint, but finding additional points of agreement and working out the details are more difficult. The threshold age for use is the first problem, and once this issue is resolved, enforcement methods have to be developed.
Threshold Age: Every statute proposed or adopted so far as simply copied the twenty-one year old age imposed for alcohol purchase or possession, but the twenty-one limit is neither well-established nor supported by any kind of objective evidence.
First, age limits on alcohol first became common after Prohibition repeal in 1933. When they did appear, they simply copied the traditional age of majority from civil law. But no one bothered to ask how the capacity to marry or make a contract related to the physiological or psychological capability to metabolize alcohol. The Viet Nam War brought up the question of why an eighteen-year old could be drafted to be killed in the army but could not vote. The constitution was amended to allow eighteen-year olds to vote, and many (but not all) states changed their laws to allow them to drink. This disparity created a major drunk driving hazard when teens drove from restrictive states to road houses and package stores in lenient states. High school principals complained that their eighteen-year old seniors were providing bad examples – and even liquor to their younger classmates. In response to these complaints and an organized drive from MADD, the federal government required the states to raise their drinking age to twenty-one in order to receive federal highway funds. The uniform twenty-one drinking age is, thus, only about forty years old.
New marijuana laws provide an opportunity to avoid, or even ameliorate, the problems caused by the age limit for alcohol. Eighteen to twenty year-olds drink at about the same rate as those just a few years longer, and with the same pattern of binge drinking. The consequences of binges include acute overdose deaths, drunk driving, violence, and reckless or non-consensual sex (which, in turn, can result in sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies). Recently, a consortium of over one hundred college presidents and administrators called for lowering the drinking age to eighteen. They argued that, while drinking by their students was illegal, it was forced undercover on and around their campuses, denying them the ability to control and regulate it. They claimed that if drinking by their students were legal, they could mitigate the bad effects and teach young people how to be responsible in their use of alcohol.
New marijuana statutes provide an opportunity to do better. While eighteen is almost as arbitrary as twenty-one, it does have several advantages (but see the “outrageous proposal” below). First, it is consistent with the age of majority and voting age. It is the age at which most youths graduate from high school.
More important, legal marijuana at eighteen should greatly reduce the harm done by under-age drinking. Marijuana users tend to drink less when they are smoking than when they are not, marijuana use does not result in bingeing and does not lead to aggressive or violent behavior and has small effects on driving ability. Marijuana-smoking college students would be safer than their drinking colleagues. As the college administrators pointed out with alcohol, they could regulate and supervise legal use, and even teach responsible use to their charges.
Problems of Enforcement: Actually legalization itself will do a large part of limiting access to marijuana by the young. As the Monitoring the Future data have consistently shown, underage users report that (illegal) marijuana is much easier for them to obtain than are (legal for adults) alcohol and tobacco. Street-corner dealers don’t check IDs; retail store owners do.
Delivery by adults to underage consumers (whether for money or not) should remain illegal. One possible regulation would make delivery of less than an ounce to a buyer over sixteen a misdemeanor and delivery of an ounce or more to any underage consumer or any amount to a child under sixteen a felony.
A major consideration should be to prevent any minor from being subject to the criminal justice system, including arrest as well as trial, sentencing, and a criminal record. If a minor delivers marijuana (in any amount) to an underage consumer, the matter should be handled administratively, with a non-criminal process used to impose community service or educational requirements on the offending youth. School supervision of the offender may be necessary, but suspension or exclusion from public schools should never be used.
The same principle of avoiding additional harm should also govern possessory offenses by those under the threshold. Those sixteen or older should be subject to non-criminal fines without arrest or detention. For these older offenders, repeat violations might be treated as more serious juvenile offenses, but the violators should never be incarcerated with adults. Possessors under sixteen should be referred to mandatory counseling, preferably under the control of the school attended, but in the case of a first offense, that counseling should consist of only one mandatory session, with any follow-ups being within the discretion of the counselor.
These two proposals taken together should prevent most of the harms done to young people both by marijuana misuse and by overly aggressive law enforcement. However, to make the system even more effective, they should be combined with the following…
Outrageous Proposal: Just like teenagers learning to drive automobiles (much, much more dangerous than marijuana), teens should be allowed to have marijuana learner’s permits. Society needs to help them prepare to be responsible adults.
A sixteen-year old, with permission of a parent or guardian, should be allowed to qualify for a limited marijuana license. In order to qualify, the applicant must complete a training course (much like the one-day defensive driving courses now used) and pass an exam on the materials. The license would be non-transferable, and would be cancelled if used by anyone other than the holder.
Once the license is issued, the holder would be allowed to purchase no more than one-eighth of an ounce on either Friday or Saturday each week. Smart card technology would make these limitations easy to enforce. Use of the marijuana in a public place or at a school function would lead to forfeiture.
This license would limit the possibilities of irresponsible use and could lead to the detection of any tendency to compulsive use before habits develop.
Legalization is coming. But thought, planning, and effort are needed to do it in a way most protective of young people. Maybe these proposals will encourage that process.