Protecting children from drugs is a cause everyone can agree on. But the argument for cannabis legalization is often halted in its tracks by the mere suggestion of children being exposed to drugs.
After decades of enduring the war on drugs and trillions of dollars spent on those efforts, there is very little to show for. Teen drug use has remained fairly consistent since the launch of the D.A.R.E. program in 1983, and statistics in states with legal cannabis show teen use has either stayed the same or slightly decreased after legalization. If adults are worried about the effects of cannabis legalization on children, the data shows that it is a non-issue, and that traditional preventative efforts have been ineffective.
If the intention is truly to protect teens, then measures that prevent teens from going to jail for minor drug offenses must also be part of the dialogue. States that have legalized have typically decriminalized cannabis, a first step in protecting all citizens from incarceration. In November 2016, California legalized recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older. For those under 18 caught in possession of cannabis will only face a minor infraction, along with drug education and community service. This is in stark contrast to laws in states like Texas, where even a small amount of cannabis will lead to jail time, regardless of age.
The effects of incarceration on such a young population means more teens with mental health disorders, especially when they are placed in adult detention facilities. Even if they manage to serve their time without incident, a criminal record can prevent a teen from seeking higher education, jobs, and housing. Research shows that teenagers who spent time in jail were 67 percent more likely to be incarcerated again before the age of 25. What’s more, they tend to commit more violent crimes after their experience in jail. The negative effects of incarceration show that our society is failing at protecting children, who are still children by law and under the protection of adults.
By studying the effectiveness of popular anti-drug education aimed at teens, the effects of legalization should have been predictable. The curriculum of the D.A.R.E. program used drug education as a deterrent, showing how different drugs worked and their harmful side effects. Its core tenant of “Just Say No” stressed abstinence, but also gave the impression that drug use was far more common than what was actually the case.
Furthermore, “Just Say No” seems to have failed at helping teens deal with drug use among their peers. Researchers compared drug prevention programs worldwide and found that the most effective programs spent more time practicing scripted interactions than on drug education. There is also the psychology of an adult telling an adolescent not to do something. Teenagers testing their boundaries may actually be encouraged by an adult saying, “no” to a certain activity or choice. Some graduates of the D.A.R.E. program in the 80’s and 90’s admitted the curriculum inspired them to try drugs.
Cannabis legalization may seem like an easing of penalties for drug crimes, but some offenses have actually become stricter. Adults who sell or give cannabis to minors face felony charges, and business can lose their licenses for selling cannabis to minors. Legislation has been structured so that legal cannabis businesses are motivated to inspect the identification of all customers, and this protects teenagers from gaining access to cannabis while allowing for adult use.
These laws, combined with proven drug prevention education and incarceration reform, will truly help protect teenagers and better prepare them for adulthood.
This post was originally published on July 10, 2017, it was updated on October 4, 2017.