Asked whether marijuana should be legal for adults in California, voters answered with a resounding “yes” in November. But that doesn’t mean the matter is completely settled. And it definitely doesn’t mean voters support marijuana use by minors.
Many questions remain about the drug – its effect on children and on drivers, to name just two – and the answers are only just starting to trickle in as researchers dig deeper into the public policy ramifications of making weed widely available.
Take the most recent red flag raised by UC Davis epidemiologist Dr. Magdalena Cerdá.
In a study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, Cerdá’s team of researchers found that teens in Washington state started getting high more often after voters legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012. Why? They were convinced the drug wasn’t dangerous anymore.
“Across the country there has been a decreased perception of risk associated with marijuana among adolescents,” Cerdá, the study’s lead author and associate director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, told Reuters.
Among the eighth-graders Cerdá’s team studied, their “perception of harmfulness” fell by about 14 percent between 2010 and 2015. Among the 10th-graders, the drop was about 16 percent. That’s alarming compared with teens in states where weed isn’t legal for recreational use. Their perception of harm fell by only 5 to 7 percent, according to the study.
So what does that mean for California, with its newly approved Proposition 64? The answer is unclear, but the Legislature and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who promoted the marijuana ballot initiative, should be closely following researchers’ efforts to find out. The California Medical Association, which endorsed the initiative, must get involved, too. Given the CMA’s embrace of legalization, physicians have a special duty to get involved in early education.
Comparing the states isn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples exercise. There’s some indication that teens in our state might not gravitate to weed the way teens in Washington have.
Washington was strict in its attempts to control the distribution of pot. Even after voters made it legal for medical use in 1998, law enforcement agencies regularly raided dispensaries well into 2012. California, on the other hand, was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use and decriminalized it, making the drug fairly common for years.
In Colorado, which also legalized recreational weed in 2012, Cerdá’s team followed a group of teenagers, too. But the researchers didn’t find the same kind of uptick in use that they did in Washington.
The reason is, again, unclear. But the researchers think it might be linked to the permissive way Colorado expanded the commercialization of medical pot in 2009, permitting lots of advertising that kids probably saw and allowing a large number of dispensaries to open. It was a policy change that also led to a spike in marijuana poisonings among toddlers and preteens, even as teenagers stopped seeing the drug as a risky substance.
These are things California must avoid at all costs. A bill by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, that would ban ads for marijuana products and services along state highways is a good start. So is a bill from Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, to ban smoking pot while driving.
But marijuana research is a moving target. For the good of the public – and the health of children – policy must keep up.