For Oregon kids growing up in the age of legal marijuana, the presence of pot can be a matter of perspective.
Pausing during a visit to a mall in Portland, Neema Doti and her friends described the plant as ubiquitous.
They recounted classmates who got it from older friends or even, in one case, a permissive parent. It was, one noted, all over Snapchat. But that didn’t seem to influence Doti and her friends, who uniformly said they had no interest.
“You might not be in control of whatever you’re doing,” said Doti, 18. “It messes up your health as well ... it’ll affect your education.”
But less abstinent teenagers said they saw little difference. Sam S., an 18-year-old who grew up in Portland, described himself as a “relatively avid user,” reflecting an adolescent propensity for experimenting regardless of the law, which took effect in October. He declined to be named since he’s still not allowed to use marijuana legally. Not that it’s ever stopped him.
“From before it was legalized to after didn’t really change anything,” Sam said.
From the start, the campaign to make California the fifth state allowing adult marijuana use has sought to reassure skeptical parents by emphasizing safeguards to prevent those under the age of 21 from partaking. The first sentence of proponents’ case in a state voter guide promises Proposition 64 will create a well-regulated system “while protecting our children.”
The current system of prohibition has spectacularly failed to protect children, since drug dealers don’t card.
Jason Kinney, legalization campaign spokesman
Opponents, too, are poised to make underage Californians a centerpiece of their campaign, casting the initiative’s true intent as “exposing our children to harm in order to make billions.” A national group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana is preparing to fight legalization proposals in California and other states in part by warning of the perils to children.
“The talk about (protecting) kids and all that is lip service,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the group. “This is about making money for the marijuana industry.”
The initiative that will go before voters in November would block selling or advertising pot near schools and youth centers, mandate child-proof packaging, allow for stripping licenses from businesses that sell to people younger than 21 and use the green revenue stream to fund youth prevention and programming.
If voters pass Proposition 64, California will join other Western states grappling with the task of lifting the cultural stigma and legal prohibition on marijuana without tacitly encouraging more teens to try it. Policymakers and public health experts say that requires both communicating the risks and acknowledging that, legal or not, generations of teens have had access to weed.
“The current system of prohibition has spectacularly failed to protect children,” Proposition 64 spokesman Jason Kinney said in a statement, “since drug dealers don’t card.”
While the most recent data suggests the vast majority of California’s 1.9 million high school students never toked, plenty did. Around 150,000 California high school students used pot at least 10 times a month. About 375,000 got high at least once a month.
In Colorado, people concerned about youth use recently got some heartening news: a survey found legalization hadn’t led to a surge in kids smoking, with the rate of youths who did (about one in five), essentially unchanged since 2013.
Yet a new study suggests that, post-legalization, more Colorado kids have sought medical attention after accidentally consuming THC. And a federal drug task force study found increases in youth use and drug-related school discipline, though the same data showed youth consumption rising for years before legalization.
In Oregon, a state survey found adolescent marijuana use decreasing between 2001 and 2015 (voters legalized adult weed use in 2014, and sales began in 2016). But over time, fewer young people say they see any risk in smoking once a week.
The state has recently rolled out a $4 million campaign to dissuade 12-to-20-year-olds from indulging. Messaging centers on a few themes drawn from a series of focus groups: immediate consequences like losing jobs or falling behind in school, and longer-term physical repercussions.
“Brain development isn’t complete, so there are potential longer-term effects,” said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state health officer for the Oregon Public Health Division, and “the immediate effects are it might be difficult to drive, to play sports, to hold a job if they do drug screens. Those were the two messages that really resonated with kids.”
Ads posit that it’s not worth the risk of losing a job or a driver’s license. Skateboarding figures heavily, both in an image of a skater that warns “pot can make it harder to learn new tricks” and in a video of a tattooed adult tearfully recounting how a pot habit derailed a friend’s promising skating career.
Beyond the specific content, tone mattered. Adolescents were acutely attuned to whether messages seemed genuine and honest, said Kati Moseley, a policy specialist for the Oregon Health Authority.
“Youth and young adults are skeptical about any kind of information about marijuana that’s too unequivocal, that’s too urgently stating both the harms and benefits,” Moseley said.
Kids just want to mimic the behavior of young adults in particular. They’re going to want to behave like their older friend.
Rachel Barry, co-author of paper warning pot will become “new tobacco industry”
Past efforts to discourage drug use with an abstinence-only message are widely regarded as failures, particularly the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. Keri O’Neal, a California State University, East Bay, expert on adolescent development who co-authored a paper on DARE’s shortcomings, said the ideal campaign would focus not on deterrence but on risk management.
“I think the conversation needs to change from ‘just say no’ to ‘if you choose to do this’ – yes, it’s illegal, but they drink too – ‘watch your behavior,’” O’Neal said. “‘Watch your friends, don’t leave one another alone, don’t go driving.’”
A prevention campaign that speaks exclusively to the underage would not curb pot’s allure, warned Rachel Barry, a researcher who co-wrote a paper cautioning that the legal pot industry would become another Big Tobacco. She argued that tobacco and alcohol industries had proved adept at subtle youth appeals, a tactic that cannabis companies could mimic.
“With youth prevention programs, you send this message that tobacco and alcohol are adult products, and kids just want to mimic the behavior of young adults in particular,” Barry said. “They’re going to want to behave like their older friend.”
State-funded information campaigns form one piece of the effort to influence juveniles: what society, funded by tax dollars, tells kids about weed. The other part centers on what adolescents are hearing and seeing from a legal pot industry already evolving into a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar behemoth.
Proposition 64 forbids ads on programs where roughly 30 percent or more of the audience would likely be underaged. But it does not explicitly bar television advertisements, which the opposition argues would preserve one of the widest channels for carrying the pot industry’s message. Proponents say federal law prevents such ads; the Federal Communications Commission declined comment.
The California initiative would prohibit advertising within 1,000 feet of gathering places like schools and youth centers. Billboards on interstate highways would be forbidden. It would also bar “advertising or marketing containing symbols, language, music, gestures, cartoon characters or other content elements known to appeal primarily to persons below the legal age of consumption.”
It would be up to state regulators to define what that means. In Oregon, a company called Potency Branding has been advising pot companies on how to limit their advertising’s youth appeal. That has meant nudging clients away from “more bright colors or more catchy taglines,” said creative director Mauria Betts.
Candies containing marijuana have come in for particular scrutiny.
“We’ve designed candy molds so they’re not childlike shapes,” Betts said, and counseling clients away from “candies shaped like things like robots that we feel are more attractive to minors.”
Similar concern about the outsize allure of edibles led Colorado to ban the sale of edible treats like gummies or comestibles shaped like fruits and cartoons. A recent study found that in the two years after legalization, more young people under the age of 10 ended up at hospitals or poison centers after unintentionally consuming pot.
Dr. Rob Hendrickson of the Oregon Poison Center described a small but noticeable increase in marijuana-spurred calls to the state’s poisoning hotline. Many come from adults who aren’t in any real danger, he said, but there have been some children admitted to the hospital and put on ventilators after ingesting marijuana.
Portion size in Oregon is limited to 5 milligrams of THC per serving, which has led to a “Try 5” campaign that has given hundreds of dispensaries T-shirts and posters encouraging customers to try small doses. Hendrickson called that a reasonable amount but worried about products that contain many servings, like a candy bar divided into 5-milligram chunks.
“Have you ever opened up a Hershey bar and used one-twelfth of it? ... we can’t expect a kid to do that,” Hendrickson said. “I think the idea of buying a chocolate bar or some sort of baked product, using a tenth of it,” and then storing the remainder “in a box in the refrigerator that has a lock on it is a foreign concept to some people,” he added, but an important one.
The California initiative does not prescribe potency or serving sizes, leaving that to state regulators.
Proposition 64 also allows for some flexibility on how heavily marijuana is taxed, allowing cities and counties to add to a statewide sales tax rate of 15 percent, and compelling the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office to submit a report to legislators on the ideal tax rate by 2020.
Setting the price for legal marijuana is a crucial component both of curbing youth access and of suppressing the black market: make it too expensive, and people will keep buying cheaper black-market weed. But higher prices are also effective at turning away adolescents with little expendable income.
Regardless of the price, skeptics warn that as more states legalize marijuana and normalize the habit, kids will see less reason to abstain. The share of young Oregonians who perceived no risk in regularly smoking marijuana more than doubled between 2006 and 2015, according to a state report.
Adolescents in Oregon said they’d already observed the shift. Whether or not pot is easier to get, they said, it’s less frowned upon.
“It seems like it’s a little more globally accepted,” said 20-year-old Alex P. “It’s like drinking has been – it’s more forgiven.”