Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Prop 19 Would Make Bad Matters Worse

At Phoenix House:

Next Tuesday, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, which would legalize the use of marijuana. Until recently, this legislation was leading in most polls—a fact that boggled my mind. Why increase the availability of a drug that has already destroyed the lives of countless teens and their families?

According to the latest LA Times poll, Prop 19 is now “trailing badly,” and it appears that many people have seen the light. Still, 39% of voters are in favor of legalization, a not insignificant figure. And this just doesn’t make sense.

Those of us at Phoenix House who have been working with kids for more than 40 years are troubled by this measure. Not only have we have served more young people than any other treatment provider in California, but the experience of our regions throughout the country have established us as a national authority. And we’ve seen firsthand the devastation marijuana can cause. This drug is a problem for almost all of the kids we treat; about 76% of our teen admissions nationally list marijuana as their primary drug of choice. We serve some of the most vulnerable teens in the state of California and across the country—kids whose drug use is more likely to lead to addiction. These young people are with us because marijuana has seriously impacted their lives—making it impossible for them to succeed in school, ruining their relationships with their families, and often, leading them to try even more harmful drugs when they seek an even greater high.

Our experience at Phoenix House mirrors national trends. According to SAMHSA’s Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), almost 80% of adolescent treatment admissions, aged 12 to 17, had marijuana as their primary or secondary drug of choice. Studies have shown that young people are particularly susceptible to marijuana’s side effects—which include social anxiety and cognitive impairment. Research has linked early onset marijuana use to lower GPA, early school dropout, and lower income at age 29. The drug’s street potency has also increased substantially over the past two decades, and a single joint contains four times as much cancer-causing tar as a filtered cigarette.

When we legalize a drug—thereby increasing access and removing the stigma—it follows that more people will use it. The idea that we won’t see a rise in teen marijuana use as a result is absurd. And more usage will mean more adolescents addicted, more drugged driving, and other negative consequences.

“But I smoked pot when I was young and I turned out fine,” many legalization advocates tell me. “Even our President used it.”

It’s true that not every kid who tries marijuana will become addicted. Research tells us that about 10 percent of those who try it will get hooked. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the drug puts young people at risk. And as responsible adults, our job is to reduce the likelihood that our children will engage in risky behavior—not to increase it.

Yes, if Prop 19 were to pass, we’d try to keep the drug out of kids’ hands. But with rampant underage drinking and cigarette smoking, I highly doubt we could do a better job with marijuana. The last thing our young people need is another legal intoxicant.

These are challenging times for California and Prop 19 supporters argue that legalization of marijuana would improve the state’s plight. But the bottom line is that the harm this legislation could cause outweighs its potential benefits. To support Prop 19 without considering what it would mean for the younger generation is both irresponsible and dangerous.

Howard Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House