Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ben Simpson, who lives in North Bennington with his wife. He is a Bennington College student, a member of the Bennington Incarceration Task Force and a veteran of the Iraq War.
Once again the debate over marijuana regulation in the state of Vermont is heating up. In the latest salvo from the prohibitionist side, members of the Vermont Student Assistance Professionals have voiced concerns about regulation in the state and the potential impact on Vermont’s children. Their hearts are in the right place, but they are blinded by their good intentions.
I detected four main arguments offered by the counselors: 1) Use of marijuana will rise among Vermont’s youth because of a change in how young people “think” about the drug. 2) Not enough attention or funds are being allocated for prevention and treatment for youth using and abusing marijuana. 3) Because medical marijuana has been regulated in Vermont, much of the marijuana in Vermont’s high schools originates in the medical marijuana production stream. 4) Marijuana will be “in our homes” which, will allow youth more access to the drug. I will take each point in order.
The data from states that have medical marijuana regulatory regimes do not show usage rates increase among youth. In a January 2015 Technical Report, the American Academy of Pediatrics made clear that the “data have shown that state-specific legalization of medical marijuana has not led to an increase in recreational use of marijuana by adolescents.” The preliminary data from states that have legalized and regulated the entire marijuana market also do not show an increase among young people.
If the prohibitionists were logically consistent, they would be advocating for the prohibition of alcohol, as well as marijuana. They are not.
There is some evidence that young people’s perception of risk from the use of marijuana decline because of regulatory policies. But, just like other (more harmful) legal drugs, this perception can be changed by persistent and effective public communication by health authorities, schools and the government. The campaign against cigarette use among youth is an example of this. Taxes collected from legalized sales can be directed towards similar efforts with marijuana (and even better, alcohol). We know that these public messaging campaigns work; the campaign against cigarettes shows that. We also know that criminalization does not; decades of prohibition demonstrate that.
The second objection is the easiest to address. If you want more money for treatment and prevention programs, tax the drug that you seek to reduce the usage of and use those tax monies for treatment and prevention programs. It is that simple.
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The third claim is simply outlandish. Vermont’s students are not being inundated with medical marijuana. The RAND Corporation estimated that Vermont’s unregulated marijuana industry is worth about $125-$225 million per year. Most people who use marijuana in Vermont are young people. With the state limit of four dispensaries, it beggars belief to suggest that the majority of this large market is dominated by such a small and heavily regulated dispensary system. The counselor quoted in the Burlington Free Press article bases this claim on his discussion with students. I would hazard to guess that most students do not know the entire production stream of the marijuana market within their school and hence, neither does the counselor. This fails the common sense test.
Alcohol is the deadliest drug available in Vermont. It is sold by the state and available in every town. It is in many Vermont homes. Twenty-four percent of adult Vermonters either binge drink or drink heavily. (Compare this to the 7 percent who use marijuana, an empirically safer drug.) This alcohol usage is above the national average. If the prohibitionists were logically consistent, they would be advocating for the prohibition of alcohol, as well as marijuana. They are not. Why? Marijuana is not safe. It takes its pound of flesh like any other drug. But, those negative consequences pale in comparison to alcohol. So again, why not advocate for its prohibition? I would hope it is because the marijuana prohibitionists understand that prohibition of alcohol in the United States was an utter failure. Marijuana prohibition has also been a failure. It is time for the prohibitionists to accept that and start advocating for regulation, taxation and spending on their real policy priority: helping young people struggling with their drug issues.