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Marijuana Legalization and Its Use Among American Teenagers

For the last four decades, the debate about legalization of marijuana has attracted myriad controversies (Scorza 32). Intransigent proponents of permissive marijuana policies support the notion that individuals should be allowed access to restricted amounts of marijuana for personal use. In addition, they criticize the numerous criminal sanctions associated with marijuana possession and use citing that, such penalties are excessively harsh and uncalled for (33). In an attempt to amend the ugly picture surrounding the issue of marijuana legalization, Lancet editors echoed that “cannabis per se is not a hazard to society, but driving it further underground may well be” (Joffe &Yancy 632). Similarly, advocates for legalization also argue that mortality, morbidity, and economic costs associated with other legalized stimulants such as alcohol and cigarettes use in the United States surpass the harmful effects of marijuana use (Scorza 34). On the other hand, opponents against liberalization of marijuana counter that marijuana is not a munificent drug and that its use can attract various problems to an individual (Yacoubian 24). Furthermore, opponents support their proposition based on the new psychopharmacological information that marijuana exhibit various features associated with other illicit drugs (25). Interestingly, opponents contend that legalization of marijuana for personal use would escalate its usage, thus bringing unforeseeable health, economic and social costs (MacCoun1899). Against this backdrop, this essay will support the notion that legalization of marijuana is likely to increase its’ usage among teenagers in the United States.

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Noticeably, the debate regarding legalization controversy surrounding marijuana use is not entirely a United States problem. In Australia, marijuana usage has been legalized discriminatorily in some regions (Damrongplasit & Cheng 636). On the same note, this debate has also been heightened in other countries such as Canada, Switzerland and other European countries as law makers reconsider their approach towards the legalization of marijuana (Dirk et al. 644). Interestingly, legalization of marijuana in Netherlands operates under a complex law system that permits personal use, but prohibits possession (645). On this note, in an attempt to expose the controversial issues concerning the link between legalization and increased/decreased usage, it is imperative to explore how the issue has been handled in the international arena.

Based on this brief evaluation of prior literature, no country across the world is yet to enact laws to legalize the sale, possession, advertising and usage of marijuana exclusively. This situation implies that, studies on the effects of legalization marijuana use among the youth are also limited.

To begin with, Damrongplasit and Cheng analyzed an annual survey that was carried out across various states between 1970 and 1980. The results of this survey, which was carried out among high school students concluded that, legalization debate about marijuana did not influence students’ attitudes towards use and possession of marijuana (631). Contrastingly, MacCoun analyzed data following a latter survey conducted between 1992 and 1994, and established that “youths living in decriminalized states are significantly more likely to report currently using marijuana and may consume more frequently ” (1899). Consequently, these above disparities can be interpreted based on several possible situations.

To begin with, although Damrongplasit and Cheng survey findings failed to establish any effect of legalization on use, the survey established that the states which had relaxed their laws experienced increased use of marijuana compared to the states whose laws remained intact (631). However, the results of this survey were quite confusing because the various states recorded a similar rate of increase in spite of whether the laws were favored usage or not. Nonetheless, the higher baseline increase in marijuana use could be a reflection of prior tolerance against marijuana use prior to the official legalization. However, it is imperative to note that, Damrongplasit and Cheng findings cannot be generalized across the board because it would be difficult to measure whether a similar effect would be observed if the survey was conducted among out of school teenagers, who have been found to have a higher rate of drug use (Trevino & Richard 93).

Additionally, the differing findings between Damrongplasit and Cheng and MacCoun surveys can be explained using a recent survey by Yacoubian on how marijuana legalization laws are enforced in the United States (pp. 17-34). According to Yacoubian, although some states portray a lax approach towards marijuana use, these laws are just in books, but different in application, wherein first time offenders are treated as criminals (22). On the contrary, the states whose laws appear tight-lipped against marijuana use perceive first time offences of marijuana possession as noncriminal (23). Furthermore, Yacoubian research established that youths originating from the states that treated first time possession of marijuana as noncriminal reported increased usage of the drug in the past month (24).

As aforementioned, several territories in Australia have taken a bold step towards liberalization of marijuana. On the same note, several comparative studies across the various territories have established no significant differences in use between the territories that legalized marijuana usage and those that place heavy penalties on the same (Scorza 34).

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Correspondingly, the complex system of marijuana legalization in Netherlands has been studied diversely as researchers try to establish the effects of such a move on its use. MacCoun underscores that drug policies are very complex to understand, but the fact remains that Deutschland has one of the most lax legal system on drug use (1899). However, the law is quite controversial because in as far as use of illegal drugs is not regarded as a criminal offense per se; possession of the case attracts legal punishment. Interestingly, dealing in drugs is also considered a felony, thus it becomes difficult to understand how users access the drugs (MacCoun 1899). In addition, the law also prohibits advertising practices (1900).

Following the decriminalization approach towards marijuana use in Deutschland, drug use increased consistently and substantially between 1984 and 1996, while other countries portrayed a decreasing or stabilized outlook on marijuana use (Joffe &Yancy 632). A study conducted among youth between 18 and 20years reported that marijuana use increased from 15 to 44% among second users, whilst new users ranged between 8.5% and 18.5% (Yacoubian 24). During this time, marijuana use among adolescents in the United States recorded a steady decline between 1979 and 1992 due to strict legal policies. Noticeably, a similar trend was observed in Norway where marijuana use portrayed steadiness during the same period. Contrastingly, countries such as Stockholm, Hamburg, Denmark, and Catalunya (Spain), that have similar prohibition laws to Norway recorded steadiness or decline during this period (25). However, it is difficult to establish whether the increased use among Dutch youth was attributable to the changes in drug policies. This is because the United States and Norway (Oslo) started to experience escalating marijuana use among the youth between 1992 and 1996 even though the two countries retained harsh drug polices (Joffe &Yancy 632). As a matter of fact, a comparative survey in 1999 exposed contrasting results that indicated marijuana usage among 10 graders in the United States was actually higher (44%) than what was reported in the Netherlands (28%) (Dirk et al.632). These controversies indicate that, the topic on the effect of legalization on marijuana use is quite elusive, and the controversies become deep-rooted due to lack of exclusive case studies.

At this juncture, it is imperative to mention that this study on whether legalization of marijuana increases, decreases use among teenagers is not in anyway proposing that adolescents should be allowed to use marijuana. Apparently, the debate on whether to legalize or not to legalize marijuana use does not call for free use among underage individuals, but a change in marijuana policies would also attract some significant impact on teenagers. For instance, current U.S. polices prohibits alcohol sale and use to persons below 21 years, and tobacco products sale and use to persons below 18 years. However, in spite of these restrictive policies, research has shown the above drugs are widely abused by teenagers (Dirk et al. 636). Consequently, a survey in 2003 among 12th graders reported that over 47.5% and 24.4% confessed to have abused alcohol and smoked cigarettes respectively within a period of 30 days (Damrongplasit & Cheng 641).

Obviously, legalizing marijuana could result to increased promotional campaigns in the media. Similarly, to what has been previously witnessed in alcohol and cigarette advertisements, some spill over effects would eventually be directed at teenagers (Scorza 39). According to Scorza , control measures to prevent alcohol and cigarette advertisements that contained youthful appeal have been extremely difficult to implement, and there is no proof that the measures would be effective with legalization of marijuana (40). Since the initiation of tobacco advertisement regulation measures, there has been an ensuing battle between marketers and law enforcers on whether the various adverts are directed to youthful population in disguises (41). Although the tobacco regulations in United States prohibit youth oriented advertisements, a recent survey by Dirk et al.indicated otherwise. The latter author underscores that despite the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement being put in place, cigarette advertisements in youth-oriented periodicals increased by $ 54 million (634). On the same note, Mack and Joy study revealed that expenditures for youth-oriented cigarettes brands in various periodicals have escalated at unprecedented levels between 1995 and 2000 (112). Noticeably, the advertised brands were found to be common among over 5% of 8th, 10th and 12th grades adolescents in 1998 (Trevino & Richard 106). In addition, adult-oriented cigarette brands advertisements also found their way into these youth orientated periodicals (107).

Similarly, Yacoubian cited a recent case study in Massachusetts wherein a Supreme Court judge enacted regulations that banned erection of cigarette advertisement posters within a radius of 1000 feet from a school or a children playground (24). In this ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that

“The state’s interest in preventing underage tobacco use is substantial and even compelling, but it is no less true that the sale and use of tobacco by adults is a legal activity,…..tobacco retailers and manufacturers have an interest in conveying truthful information about their products to adults, and adults have a corresponding interest in receiving truthful information about tobacco products”(Yacoubian 24). Presumably, similar advertisements restrictions are likely to be enacted for marijuana, but the big question remains whether these control measures would be effective based on the fact that, such enactments have been ineffective in controlling alcohol and cigarette advertisements, which are packaged for young audience.

The advertisements quagmire and the effectiveness of control measures to restrict the popularity of youth orientated adverts have also been witnessed in the alcohol industry. According to Scorza, alcohol advertisements have often portrayed drinking as sexy, fun, popular and idea, whereby those who do not drink are portrayed as social misfits (42). In addition, the various advertisements portray alcohol as the missing link that brings liveliness to social settings (Damrongplasit & Cheng 629). Consequently, recent surveys indicate that alcohol is a common feature in teenagers’ parties (Dirk et al. 632). This implies that adult orientated alcohol advertisements also appeal to youth audience and subsequently increases usage. On the same note, legalization of marijuana is likely to follow in the same footsteps because distributors would want to appeal to the youthful audience to increase sales. In such a situation, it is obvious that legalization of marijuana would increase its use among teenagers due to the negative effects of marijuana advertisements.

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According to Dirk et al. the United States government via the Synar Amendment prohibits sale of tobacco and its related products to minor persons under the age of 18 years (638). Devastatingly, both the federal and states government have been unable to enforce this Amendment effectively (639). The author underscores that, the escalating cases of cigarettes smoking among teenagers is associated with poor enforcement of laws that prohibit cigarette sale to minor. On the same note, legalization of marijuana would call for additional law to prohibit sale of marijuana to minors. However, it is obvious that the current legal system is overwhelmed with cigarette regulations, thus extra marijuana regulations would end up burdening the system even further.

The notion on whether legalization of marijuana for adults would alter teenagers’ perception about the drug is quite difficult to determine. However, studies have exposed that prevalence of marijuana use among teenagers is directly related to the perceived risks associated with the drug (Dirk et al. 632). According to Mack and Joy, legal sanctions may trigger the commencement of drug use during the initial stages (101). However, as the individuals gets used to these sanctions, usage may decrease substantially. Nonetheless, the impact of initial legal sanctions on drug use might be irreversible among teenagers. This is due to the fact that age has been attributed as a risk factor that rekindles drug use in future (Mack & Joy 101).

On the same note, legalization of marijuana would ease access to the drug thus increasing the risks of use among teenagers. Research on cigarette and alcohol use among adolescents indicates that availability increases usage (Scorza 32). If marijuana if readily available, even the sale prohibit laws are not likely to stop marijuana use among teenager because crafty traders will definitely sell the drug to minors (33). Noticeably, marijuana is a cheaply produced drug, thus legalization would bring its prices below the current rates (Dirk et al. 632). A survey by Mack and Joy in the United States and Trevino and Richard in Australia revealed that a decrease in the price of marijuana led to increased prevalence levels of marijuana use among adolescents (101 & 108 respectively).

On the same note, legalization of marijuana would increase its use among parents and subsequently increase use among teenagers (Dirk et al. 632). Apparently, although a substantial number of parents may be abusing marijuana, they might be doing so in secret. However, legalization would encourage use of marijuana at homes. Researches indicate that ease of access of illicit substances at household level increase the risk of use among younger and older adolescent substantially (Dirk et al. 632). Currently, some parents may not be using marijuana, not because they perceive it as awful, but because of criminal sanctions associated with illegal drug use and possession (633). However, following the relaxation of legal sanctions associated with marijuana use, some of them may decide to start using marijuana. By so doing, such parents would be exposing their children to the illicit drug, thus increasing the risk of marijuana use by these children. According to Damrongplasit and Cheng, parental use of marijuana was associated with increasing use among adolescents (638). This implies that legalization of marijuana will increase use among parents and subsequently lead to increased use among adolescents.

In an attempt to call attention to their advocacy, some proponents of legalization of marijuana have often cited that marijuana use is safer than alcohol use. These proponents argue that if following legalization of marijuana adolescent who abuse alcohol switched to marijuana, the effects would be less harmful (Mack & Joy 101). However, recent economic research revealed that the two substances were not substitutes, but complements, thus the substitution theory does not substantiate the legalization of marijuana. As a matter of fact, an increase in marijuana use would also increase alcohol use among adolescents (Mack & Joy 101).

In a nutshell it is evident that legalizing marijuana would increase its use among teenagers in the United States. Several studies that exposed the Dutch experience between 1984 and 1992 following legalization of marijuana have been explored explicitly in this essay. Similarly, recent studies pertaining to the relationship between liberated availability of marijuana and its use among American adolescents have positively indicated that legalization increases marijuana use among these individuals. However, bearing in mind that no country is yet to exercise outright legalization of marijuana, the potential effects of legalization of marijuana on the American teenager can be difficult to hypothesize. However, comparative international surveys across countries where legalization of marijuana have been enacted either to a greater or lesser extent have revealed contrasting results, that making it impossible to generalize this case studies to the United States dilemma.

Interestingly, several studies have proposed that, legalization of marijuana increases its exposure among adolescents, and that this exposure could make these teenagers to downplay the risks associated with marijuana use. Citing cigarette and alcohol legislations laws, researchers concur that legalization of adult oriented drugs has negative effects on minors. The fact that legalization of cigarette and alcohol has increased their use among underage individuals depict that marijuana legalization would assume a similar slope. In addition, advertising strategies for marijuana are likely to assume the same model adopted by cigarette and alcohol advertisers where they package their adverts with youthful appeal to attract underage users to their brands. The mind-boggling question one can ask here is that, if current advertising control measures have been unable to regulate advertisement targeting youthful audience, why should we assume that they will be effective when marijuana is legalized. Furthermore, the fact that retailing of cigarettes and alcohol to teenagers have sustained unperturbed by the various laws that prohibit this practice is a clear indicator that additional laws to prohibit marijuana sale among underage users would also not be effectual. To recap it all, it is evident that legalization of marijuana would increase its use among teenagers in the United States.

Works Cited

Damrongplasit, Kannika & Hsiao Cheng. “Decriminalization Policy and Marijuana Smoking Prevalence: A Look at the Literature.” Singapore Economic Review 54.4 (2009): 621-644.

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Dirk J. Korf, et al. “Access To Licensed Cannabis Supply And The Separation Of Markets Policy In The Netherlands.” Journal of Drug Issues 39.3 (2009): 627- 651.

Joffe, Alain & Samuel Yancy. “Legalization of Marijuana: Potential Impact On Youth.” Pediatrics 113.6 (2004): 632-638.

MacCoun, Robert J. “What Can We Learn From The Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop System?”.Addiction 106.11 (2011): 1899-1910.

Mack, Alison & Joy, Janet E. Marijuana as medicine? The science beyond the controversy. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2001. Print.

Scorza, Thomas J. “Legalizing Drugs Is Not The Answer.” Human Rights 17.2 (1990): 24-56.

Trevino, Robert A & Richard, Alan. “Attitudes towards drug legalization among drug users”. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 28.1 (2002):91-108.

Yacoubian, George S. “Assessing the Relationship between Marijuana Availability and Marijuana Use: A Legal and Sociological Comparison between the United States and the Netherlands.” Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education 51.4 (2007): 17- 34.

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