Why I think federal prohibition fails young people

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As leaders in this space, we need to consider the current approach to cannabis and its impact on the people we want to protect.

The United States has been painstakingly slow to embrace federal cannabis reform. Despite 18 states now having legal, non-medical cannabis access, there are still Americans in jail on cannabis-related charges. According to findings from Pew Charitable Trusts, one in three of the possession-related arrests made in 2019 were for marijuana.

Preliminary data and research from outside jurisdictions are demonstrating that cannabis legalization could be shaping up to be a more sensible and controlled approach than prohibition, particularly in protecting a key segment of the population — young people.

Through my graduate studies, I began as a student interested in drug policy with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and have spent the better part of eight years mentoring youth interested in cannabis policy and education. I currently support a government-funded, peer-led cannabis education campaign run by CSSDP, Get Sensible, which started as an educational toolkit I spearheaded to help support the critical need for realistic, evidence-based cannabis education. I was also invited to the Senate of Canada as an expert witness to talk about cannabis legalization and youth in 2017. Through these experiences, I’ve seen that we still have so far to go in protecting our young people.

When it comes to young people and what it means to “protect” them, opponents of legalization have long argued that outright prohibition is the only way to keep youth safe. Meanwhile, we continue to provide little comprehensive support and education in key places, like schools, to help youth truly develop their health literacy around substance use.

Instead, what young people, especially in the U.S., have access to is usually almost entirely focused on risk and abstinence. This narrow focus on potential individual health harms misses a broader lens that captures all potential harms, including the impact of criminalization, especially for young people from justice-impacted communities. As leaders in this space, we need to consider the current approach to cannabis and its impact on the people we want to protect. We need to ask ourselves if the approach we have relied on for decades — prohibition, a patchwork of regulations and a lack of access to evidence-informed education about cannabis — is causing more harm than good. I believe the short answer is yes.

In Canada, before legalization and not unlike in the United States, young people’s cannabis use was already some of the highest across any developed country. Back then, in 2017, Canada estimated the prevalence of cannabis use among young people aged 15-17 was around 18 percent and those aged 18-24 was about 28 percent. Opponents argued then that legalization would increase youth use.

The proportion of Canadians who were using cannabis in ways that may lead to potential health and social harms (i.e., frequent or heavy use) was and continues to be very low — around 2 percent. This is a critical point as most of the scientific evidence that examines the individual health harms associated with cannabis use often draws on populations of frequent and heavy users, which is not representative of most (young and older) people who use cannabis. This is layered with the fact that many of those potential health harms we often talk about do not yet have causal evidence to back up those claims. And since legalization in Canada, youth use for the most part has not increased.

While still highly important to research, discuss and capture safeguards and supports for substance misuse, it seems cannabis use for many young people could be experimental, irregular and social. Cannabis legalization rooted in a public health approach that seeks to minimize harm at a population level could be one of the best ways to equip individuals with the tools they need to navigate choices around their health, including the choice to use or not use cannabis.

The “just say no” approach has never been a realistic or even a successful way to prevent drug use by any measure. Abstinence-based drug education, focused solely on exaggerated harms, are a disservice to the type of robust, evidence-based information youth should be getting from trusted sources and people in their lives. In fact, historically championed abstinence-based programs, like D.A.R.E, have long been shown to be ineffective at best and may lead to an increase in substance use at its worst.

Particularly when we consider seniors in high schools across the U.S. have some of the highest usage rates, there continues to be a focus on narrow and risk-based approaches that simply don’t resonate with young people. These methods continue to be disconnected from their actual experiences and what they’re seeing around them.

Lacking realistic, non-judgemental and evidence-based information could lead to more risky and problematic use behaviors with young people who are often navigating conflicting narratives from a multitude of sources, including their peers, parents, schools and the media.

This is juxtaposed against the real and undisputable harms of the criminalization of cannabis possession and the high rates at which young people — particularly young Black men — are being arrested for cannabis across the U.S. While arrest rates for cannabis among young people have declined in states that have embraced some form of cannabis legalization, this shouldn’t be a privilege afforded to only those who live in particular states. This may serve to widen inequities across the board.

With the ongoing criminalization of weed and the racial disparities we know to exist and continue to target justice-impacted communities, why do we lack action on proper reform when it comes to cannabis? From my perspective, this is actually what harms young people, either directly or indirectly — negatively impacting lives, futures, families and communities.

What we need now is a meaningful model that can respect the progress made in individual states, begin to undo the far-reaching harms of social injustice, and offer regulated oversight on the sale and distribution of cannabis. This includes setting minimum age restrictions, rules on marketing, product testing, labeling requirements and childproof packaging. Americans, especially young people, deserve a change.

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