The Biden administration recently declared that no one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana and that individuals convicted of simple possession at the federal level shall be pardoned.

This ruling is consistent with decades of scientific studies that established the need for serious reform of marijuana policies. Clearly, our nation’s approach to substance use and addiction should always be conceived of through a public health rather than criminal justice lens.

A public health approach also demands that we consider the effects of reforming marijuana laws on the health and well-being of young people and that we ensure such reform fully considers the bulk of scientific evidence.

Irrespective of where the public stands on the decriminalization or legalization of the adult use of nonmedical marijuana, our concern is with impacts on adolescents, as the loosening of these laws inevitably conveys to them that marijuana is not harmful. In reality, it can be harmful if used during development when it is most likely to impair mental and physical functioning, especially given the intense potency of today’s marijuana.

Decriminalizing the use and possession of marijuana is long overdue.

Decades of order maintenance policies that accompanied the drug war decimated communities through mass incarceration, significantly and unevenly affecting people of color due to persistent structural racism.

Also, strict prohibition policies had sweeping effects on availability of medical marijuana and its nonaddictive components, limiting access for patients with pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases who could benefit from medicalized marijuana’s ameliorative properties.

In effect, prohibition of marijuana has been a costly failure, contributing to mass incarceration, militarized policing, and disruption of communities and families.

While the benefits of marijuana decriminalization are clear, an increasing number of states are legalizing nonmedical marijuana for adult use and possession — quite a different matter from decriminalization — especially in the U.S., where legalization of addictive substances is invariably tantamount to commercialization.

In Illinois alone, marijuana sales reached $1.5 billion last year. Although these laws are intended to limit legal access to adults, they pose substantial risks to children and teens in the absence of appropriate safeguards.

Research showing a relationship between legalization laws and use of marijuana in adolescents has produced mixed results, with some studies reporting increases and others either not finding increased use or showing more nuanced results.

Over the past three years, the pandemic affected teen use and our ability to measure it, so concern about the effects of policies on adolescent use may not be accurately reflected in data. However, evidence of a trend toward increased use is mounting.

What is clear is the dramatic increase in young adult use. Brain science tells us development continues until the late 20s, so marijuana also could adversely influence young adults’ health outcomes and risk for addiction.

Additional studies of the effects of legal permissibility on risks for imminent adolescent use find a growing trend toward normalization of use, ease of access, and less likelihood of a belief that marijuana is harmful, despite scientific evidence that use during adolescence is detrimental to physical and mental health.

Indeed, we are witnessing a growing national trend across age groups reflective of broader normalization of marijuana use and a significant uptick in serious negative consequences, such as marijuana-related prenatal exposure, unintentional childhood ingestion and poisoning, mental health problems, alterations in the developing reproductive system, marijuana use disorder, car crashes and other indicators of poor life functioning.

Although these effects are consequential during adolescence, most people are unaware that wide access to marijuana products — now in far more potent forms — can harm young people. In fact, the public receives confusing, inaccurate and politically charged rhetoric from both sides of the legalization debate, especially from marijuana industry-funded interests.

As is true of tobacco and alcohol, the marijuana industry’s profit-driven motives are at odds with public health.

Correcting misinformation is critical to protecting youths. Misconceptions about the risk of marijuana use among adolescents are strongly associated with use — i.e., the more adolescents perceive that the harms are negligible, the more likely they are to partake.

The public deserves to understand how messages we hear are conflating two sets of issues: social justice with decriminalization and medical uses of marijuana with wholesale marijuana legalization. These messages let the marijuana industry garner public support and obscure risks of casual use.

The public deserves to know the risks of young people believing marijuana is safe or beneficial, as well as the negative effects of use during pregnancy on cognitive development of the fetus and eventually the child.

A science-based public education campaign is urgently needed, in concert with marijuana reforms, to provide accurate information regarding adverse consequences and potential benefits of the drug.

The public can then make informed decisions about their own use and how to protect young people from exposure, access and use. Lawmakers will be equipped to formulate legislation that conveys the least harm and most benefit to constituents who, once informed, will be more receptive to constraints on the manufacture, marketing and sale of marijuana to protect our nation’s youths.

Diana Fishbein is a senior scientist and program director in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina and the director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives. Linda Richter is vice president of prevention research and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction in New York. Zili Sloboda is president of Applied Prevention Science International in Ohio.

Copyright 2023 Tribune Content Agency.


(1) comment


A narrow focus on pot may obscure the fact that anything people might smoke has carbon monoxide which dos harm their health. They ought to decide if it is worth it or not. And yes, I know not all pot is smoked.

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