It’s illegal for teenagers to smoke marijuana, but 15-year-old Michael Esqueda of Brea says it’s all around him.
“I really just see it as whatever,” says Michael, who will be a junior at Whittier High School. “Like, not as a bad thing or a good thing. It’s there. I know a lot of people at my school that do it, there’s always that big group and you know, individuals.”
As Californians prepare to vote on Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, many are asking if teenagers’ pot use would increase if recreational marijuana were legal.
Among them is Michael’s mother, Raquel Aguilera. She’s concerned that if recreational pot becomes legal, it will become more accepted – and therefore harder to deter her children from trying it.
“I’ve found being a parent, you have a million and one concerns about everything there is,” Aguilera says.
“It’s going to be there, whether I vote yes or no,” she says. But, “the parent thing for me to do is to vote ‘no.'”
Little data exists on whether teen pot use increases when recreational marijuana is legalized. It’s now legal in four states and the District of Columbia, but experts say it’s too soon to know if more teens are smoking in those places.
In Colorado, which was the first state to legalize recreational pot, the state department of public health has collected some early data: The Healthy Kids Colorado Study finds that a year after legalization, pot use among teens is relatively unchanged.
In 2015, about 38 percent of Colorado high school students reporting ever trying pot and 21 percent using it in the last 30 days, the study finds.
Colorado’s results are consistent with national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which has been asking high school students about their drug and alcohol use for 25 years. It finds that in 2015, about 39 percent of teenagers reported trying pot and about 22 percent currently use it.
Nationwide, pot use among teens nationwide peaked in the late 1990s and has been declining ever since, according to the CDC.
In the absence of complete data, advocates of legalization point to research concluding that teen pot use has not increased in states that have legalized medical marijuana.
These studies prove that, “when we have a regulated market, society has the ability to limit and control who provides marijuana legally, who distributes marijuana legally, and who uses marijuana legally, and where those individuals are allowed to use marijuana,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
But Dr. Sarah Landsman, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, says comparing the effects of medical and recreational marijuana laws on teen pot use is like comparing apples and oranges.
“There’s a big difference between patients trying to access a medication and an industry being developed that can be powerful and can have lobbyists, and can market a product,”says Landsman, who authored one of the papers on the effects of medical marijuana laws on teens.
She adds that if recreational marijuana were legal, companies’ goals, “won’t be public health, their goal will be making a profit.”
Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a pediatrics professor at Stanford University, is also concerned that if marijuana were legal and widely marketed, teens would perceive it as a low-risk product.
Based on her research on marijuana, alcohol and tobacco, Halpern-Felsher says, “if adolescents perceive low risk and high benefit to any particular substance, then they are more likely to go on and use those products.”
Studies have found that using marijuana before age 18 is associated with shorter attention spans and lower IQ levels. Early use of marijuana has also been shown to be associated with changes in the structure of the teenage brain.
Proposition 64 would prohibit the sale of non-medical marijuana to people younger than 21 years old. It also includes other safeguards intended to keep pot out of teenagers’ hands: It prevents marijuana businesses from being located within 600 feet of schools, and it prevents pot products from being advertised to kids.
Michael Esqueda says he’s tried marijuana. But once his parents found out, he agreed to wait until he’s an adult to try it again. Maybe by then, he says, recreational pot will be legal.
“Why do it when you could actually have fun without all that,” he says. “You can still have a good time without alcohol or pot. I’m not going to do it now – my mom and my dad have said, they both said, once I turn of age, and it does become legal, then it’s my choice, I could decide to keep doing it or not to do it.”
This story is part of Take Two’s special coverage on what the legalization of recreational pot could mean for California’s economy, criminal justice system and society.
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