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Teens Sort Fact and Fiction in Marijuana Debate

by Kelly Petty, published
credit: Shay Sowden

credit: Shay Sowden

Pro-marijuana messages have trickled down to younger generations, finding a community of people that are challenging accepted ideas about the drug and its perceived effects. Despite the work of groups like the Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana and The Partnership at, young people are actively engaged in the marijuana debate trying to filter fact and fiction on both sides of the issue.

Those efforts seem to be paying off as younger generations have become more aware of the presence of marijuana and have questioned accepted ideas about the drug.

Gone are the days of “Reefer Madness,” fears replaced with shifting attitudes about marijuana due to the failure of the War on Drugs and criminalization of pot users. The FBI Uniform Crime Statistics showed that more than 600,000 arrests were made for marijuana possession.

Spurred by Libertarian Ron Paul’s push to end marijuana prohibition during the 2012 presidential election, the nation saw a host of young voters get behind the idea of legalizing marijuana and ending penalties for the manufacture, distribution, and possession of the drug.

Additionally, momentum for marijuana reform laws in Colorado and Washington has solidified America’s growing acceptance of cannabis. Marijuana opponents are threatened by this new attitude.

“We are certainly not sending a very good message when we call it medicine and legalize it,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), in an article from The Oregonian.

Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), agreed citing the Institute’s annual survey which showed that about a third of 10th graders and nearly 45 percent of high school seniors have tried marijuana.

“So as another school year begins, we all must step up our efforts to educate teens about the harms of marijuana so that we can realign their perceptions of this drug with the scientific evidence,” she said.

The fear among marijuana proponents is that desensitizing teens about marijuana use overshadows its perceived negative effects, including memory loss and reduced IQ.

Yet, it appears that not all teenagers are buying those notions. NIDA’s annual Drug Facts Chat Day back in January brought together middle and high school students with drug policy experts to answer student questions.

Some of the more inquisitive questions included inquiries about hookahs, whether hydroponics or natural growing produces more dangerous pot and if marijuana produces a slow sex drive. In some cases, the experts gave students answers contrary to the message that marijuana is harmful enough to be illegal.

A student from Walter Johnson High School in Maryland asked what the most lethal drug was. Dr. Joni Rutter, Acting Director of NIDA’s Division of Basic Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, admitted that tobacco produced the most deaths, concluding, “the CDC reports that more deaths are caused each year by tobacco than by all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined.”

Another student from the same high school recognized the correlation between prohibition and an increase in drug use among minors and asked if legalizing marijuana would reverse it. Ruben Baler, Health Science Administrator for NIDA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications, agreed that prohibition increases the drugs appeal, but felt that making it available could potentially increase drug use in the short term.

Still, some young people were on the fence about marijuana legalization based on their own personal experiences. Those students assure marijuana proponents that their message of drug resistance still resonates.

Dr. Susan Weiss, Associate Director for Scientific Affairs of NIDA, answered a student's question about why marijuana was being legalized despite its harmful effects. She stated:

I'm so glad that you are aware that marijuana has bad consequences.  Unfortunately not everyone is, and that's part of why it has become legal in some states.  Also, there are organizations (that are well financed) and making a big push for legalization.  At the same time, there are others, like the scientists at NIDA, who try to counter these messages with what we know from our research.  I hope that all states will not eventually legalize marijuana--especially for young people, it can be particularly harmful, affecting your ability to do well in school, to drive safely, and it may even lead to mental health problems.  Please help us spread the word--friends can be much more persuasive than adult authority figures.

Despite objections, some students continue to advocate for smart reforms. The Students for Sensible Drug Policy stood in solidarity in February with representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to announce new bills to be introduced into Congress that would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. The House Democrats also look to form a congressional fact-finding group called the “Sensible Drug Policy Working Group,” which would work on pot regulation.

“This is the number one issue that excites young people,” said Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “Especially because youth are disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, this is a special moment for our movement.”

The focus on young people to drive the debate is what both sides will look to exploit as marijuana reform continues to gain traction at the state and federal level.

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