On March 9, 2016

Youth and marijuana: Colorado’s experience and efforts

By Debby Haskins

When recreational marijuana was made legal in Colorado, the governor and other proponents promised that they would keep it out of the hands of youth. It’s the same promise Governor Shumlin and other legalization proponents are now making here. Can they succeed? The answer from Colorado is a resounding “No.”

The newly-released National Survey of Drug Use and Health — with 70,000 respondents, the largest of any other study of its kind — shows that in 2013 and 2014 the marijuana use rate for Colorado’s 12-17-year-olds climbed by 20 percent over the 2012 rate. In that same two-year period, the use rate for the college-age, 18-25-year-old group increased 17 percent. Colorado is now No. 1 in the nation for teenage marijuana use. In fact, Colorado is now No. 1 in all age groups.

During the same time period in Vermont, the 12-17-year-old use rate went down by 15 percent, and the 18-25-year-old use rate also decreased by 8 percent.

How can Vermont prevent the same soaring rates if the Legislature legalizes recreational pot? We can’t, at least, not through the two bills now being considered at the State House. Both bills specify that a certain portion of the money raised from taxes will go toward education about the harms of marijuana, but Colorado’s law does the same thing. Colorado spent $2 million in 2014 on a marketing campaign to keep youth use rates down, and we now see the results. Last month, Colorado started a new campaign that they say will cost $6 million and is aimed at all ages.

How would an increase of 20 percent more teenage users and 17 percent more college-age users affect Vermont?

According to the state’s Health Impact Assessment on Marijuana Regulation, traffic safety will decline as happened in Colorado and Washington State, where traffic fatalities associated with marijuana use have significantly increased.

In addition, the number of youth suffering from cannabis abuse disorder will increase. “Early and continuous use of marijuana significantly increases risk of not completing high school, not enrolling inor completing college, low educational achievement, lower income, unemployment and welfare dependence as an adult, premature work force retirement due to disability, and reduction in IQ in middle adulthood,” the report states.

Vermont’s social services are already overloaded, and efforts to address the fallout from cannabis abuse disorder will quickly eat up every bit of the taxes that might be raised by legalization, not to mention the incalculable personal costs to the individuals and their families.

Vermont has already decriminalized marijuana, and no one is going to jail or getting a criminal record for simple possession. We have legalized medical marijuana, so people with real need have access to the relief that marijuana can provide in certain diseases. We have legalized industrial hemp production and sales, offering business and tax opportunities. Now is the time for Vermont to consolidate and improve on what we have, not to ignore the data that indicates we would put our youth at risk.

Debby Haskins is the executive director for Smart Approaches to Marijuana in Vermont (SAM-VT).

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