Voters in Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana November 6, apparently buying proponents' claim that regulating marijuana like alcohol will keep the drug out of the hands of teenagers.
That's a claim worth analyzing.
For one thing, science has established that children who initiate drug use in adolescence are several times more likely to become addicted than those who start as adults. For another, a landmark study out of New Zealand finds persistent marijuana use before age 18 that continues into adulthood results in a significant drop in IQ by mid-life, enough to move a person from average to the bottom third of the IQ scale. With more than one-third of Washington's and more than one-fourth of Colorado's high school students failing to graduate, it is critical to make sure adolescents can't obtain a drug that will make it harder for them to succeed academically.
One way to estimate how effective regulating marijuana like alcohol will be is to compare young people's alcohol use with their marijuana use in these states today. It turns out that twice as many younger teens (ages 12 to 17) used alcohol in the past month as used marijuana, while three times more older teens and young adults (ages 18 to 25) did so. Even worse, on a national scale, six times more 12-year-old children used alcohol than marijuana in 2010.
Here are the data: 14 percent of Washington's younger teens use alcohol while 8 percent use marijuana. For their older counterparts? 62 percent alcohol, 23 percent marijuana. In Colorado 18 percent of the younger group uses alcohol; 10 percent use marijuana. For the older group, it's 70 percent alcohol, 26 percent marijuana. For the youngest children nationwide? Alcohol was used by 60,000 12-year-olds vs. 10,000 who used marijuana in 2010.
So, if these states regulate marijuana like alcohol, they can expect to see marijuana use double among younger teens, triple among older teens and young adults, and sextuple among 12-year-olds.
There's a lot to be learned from our experience with trying to keep alcohol and tobacco out of kids' hands. These industries have proven that a minimum age is not enough. Nationwide, some 60 percent of new smokers and some 80 percent of new drinkers each year are underage. The industries blame parents for this, but the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that parents are not at fault.
The survey asked underage young people where they got alcohol the last time they drank it. About a third paid for it, either buying it themselves or having someone else buy it for them. Of those who didn't pay, about 20 percent got it from another underage person. About that many again got it from a parent, guardian, or adult family member. The rest took it from home, took it from someone else's home, or got it some other way.
A major reason underage young people smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol is because these industries market their products to children relentlessly, knowing the more who start early the more will become addicted -- and lifetime customers. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that Big Tobacco spends $1 million a day marketing to underage kids.
Even so, we've cracked down much harder on tobacco than on alcohol to reduce such practices, and youth rates of tobacco use reflect this. While alcohol is used by twice as many 12 to 17 year olds as marijuana, their cigarette use is about the same as marijuana. And even though the legal age for tobacco is 18, far fewer 18 to 25 year olds use cigarettes than alcohol. Clearly, regulating marijuana like cigarettes would be more effective than regulating it like alcohol.
But state leaders have an opportunity to do even better than that by crafting tougher marijuana regulations than those restraining the tobacco industry. How? Create a regulation that will automatically repeal legalization if underage marijuana use exceeds today's levels. Such a step will force a commercial marijuana industry to keep its hands off kids or lose the ability to stay in business.
Sue Rusche is president and CEO of National Families in Action, Atlanta, Georgia. The organization is leading the But What about the Children? Campaign that promotes tough regulations to prevent a marijuana industry from marketing to children like the alcohol and tobacco industries do.