A reader writes:
Your reader clearly knows much more than I do about marijuana use as it relates to child psychology. I'm not questioning those assertions. But this struck me as a little odd: "But let's not kid ourselves; more kids will have more access to weed, and this is a problem for which we need to prepare." How is your reader so certain?
Survey data reliably shows us that children today can more easily access illicit cannabis than either alcohol or tobacco. California has seen no increase in teen use after the medical marijuana industry in that state exploded. Usage numbers among Dutch teenagers are even lower than they are here. There's simply no evidence that more liberal cannabis policies lead to higher use among kids.
Those who distribute marijuana are already violating the law and operate in a black market, where there is no incentive to follow any rules like age limits. However, legitimate establishments that sell alcohol have many incentives to follow the rules, including the possibility of losing their license to operate.
Of course we still have underage drinking (though I think that has more to do with America's schizophrenic attitudes towards alcohol and a legal drinking age so high as to be unenforceable), but there is no reason to believe that legalized marijuana will lead to an increase in access. Though it sounds counter-intuitive, legalization, if done correctly, would decrease the access children have to marijuana. While the arguments about individual liberty and decreasing violence are indeed compelling, it is this argument that I believe most likely to win the day over those skeptical of the idea.
Most of that child psychiatrist's fears are quite justified. I started smoking pot at 14 and wish I had waited.
The teenage brain truly is still developing and, just as important, life habits are settling into place. I was lucky that my motivation and energy doesn't seem to be sapped by weed, and life is now good, but it's still critically important that kids be educated about the genuine dangers of marijuana. (As opposed to the scare-tactics of our current D.A.R.E. regime.)
What the shrink is wrong about, however, is the idea that legalization will create greater access for kids. I started smoking pot at 14 because it was significantly easier to get than alcohol. Buying booze always involved either an illegal fake ID handed over to a stranger, or approaching a homeless person and negotiating with them. Neither of these were things I wanted to do at 14.
On the other hand, my friend's older brother sold pot and I had known the guy for years. And since what he was doing was illegal anyway, he didn't give a shit how old we were. Kids can get pot. Period.
The point is that by giving someone an opportunity to start a legitimate business selling something, you make them a stakeholder in the process. Many bars and clubs really are conscientious about checking ID because they don't want to lose their license by getting caught serving underage kids. I can assure you that there are not many drug dealers who have a moral qualm about selling drugs to teens, especially marijuana. But licensing them to sell gives them a commercial incentive not to sell to kids.
If cannabis is legalized, will there be people who buy it for kids? Of course, just like I sometimes bought booze for my younger cousins when I turned 21. But at least when I was doing that, I felt a responsibility to take care of them, watch them, and not give them enough to really hurt themselves.
I think the child psychologist is quite wrong about legalization making access to weed easier for teens. When I was in high school, 11 years ago in the backwoods of Missouri, it was much easier to get get marijuana than it was to get alcohol. You had to find someone's older brother or older friend to get alcohol; getting ditch weed was just a matter of knowing the right classmate (and everyone knew who the right classmate was). Drug dealers don't check ID.
I don't imagine that it's gotten any harder to get weed in the past 11 years, especially in California. So legalization will probably make it harder for teens to get weed than it is today. It will be a different story for college kids, since they know a lot more 21 year olds who will buy it legally, but at least they won't have to deal with shady drug dealers to score a bit of weed.