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Teen pot smokers? Don’t blame medical marijuana laws

Marijuana prohibition has failed, and in the never-ending quest for excuses, the medical marijuana movement appears to be the latest scapegoat. In a column that ran in this space on Jan. 11, “Ho hum attitude toward pot has more teens lighting up,” Dr. Joel Kaufman attempted to prop up this rationalization. At one point, he claimed that “data shows (sic) that in almost every state that has passed a medical marijuana law, youth have increased the frequency of marijuana use in the past 30 days.”

That might be true, but the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, on which the claim is based, doesn’t actually track frequency of use within a 30-day period, so I would have no way of knowing. More importantly, though, it doesn’t tell you anything about what effect, if any, state medical marijuana laws have had on teen marijuana use trends in those states. To understand that, you would have to compare use rates before and after a medical marijuana law took effect in each of those states.

In a report I co-authored for the Marijuana Policy Project, I did just that. Today, 15 states have passed medical marijuana laws. It turns out that, according to the latest data, of the 13 medical marijuana states with available before-and-after data (New Jersey and Arizona’s laws were passed too recently to find post-enactment data), teen marijuana use is down in 10 of the 13, stable in one, and up slightly in only two. Coincidentally, the three states with use rates that haven’t gone down are the three states that passed their laws most recently — Rhode Island, New Mexico and Michigan — during a period in which teen use rates are up nationwide.

Even in California, often labeled as the wild, wild, west of medical marijuana states, the percentage of teens using marijuana is lower today than it was in 1996, when it became the first state to pass a medical marijuana law.

What’s even more troubling is the continued assertions by the drug czar and others that medical marijuana is some devious, underhanded step toward legalization. Myriad scientific studies too numerous to count have demonstrated marijuana’s efficacy in treating pain, nausea, muscle spasticity and other symptoms. Just last year, researchers at the University of California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research found that marijuana can be effective in treating pain in certain syndromes caused by injury or diseases of the nervous system, as well as painful muscle spasms such as those caused by multiple sclerosis. Even the prestigious Institute of Medicine, in a 1999 report commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, declared, “[n]ausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana.”