At first glance, it’s not so easy to understand how ending the war on drugs benefits young people. After all, there’s little more frightening to a parent or frustrating to a teacher than dealing with a child in trouble with drugs including alcohol. We all want to protect our children from any potential impediments to their healthy development, but concerned adults everywhere are beginning to question whether the war on drugs is justified or if it’s even working.
That is because kids now have unfettered access to a vast underground illicit market that supplies them all sorts of drugs cheaper and more powerful than ever. And despite our demands to abstain or delay their use, we know that most teens will try a substance by the time they graduate high school.
By criminalizing a common risky teen behavior, we have driven it further underground with our children growing comfortable lying to us about it and breaking the law to do it.
The war on marijuana has our children squarely in its crosshairs.
Although ostensibly enforced to protect our young, marijuana prohibition actually puts them at heightened risk in two major ways: First, by denying kids the honest drug education that would improve health and in some cases save lives; and second, by making them the targets of police action, with all the negative life consequences that brings.
Let’s consider the sheer scale and disproportionate impact of that second point. FBI:Uniform Crime Reporting reports that marijuana possession violations accounted for over 40 percent all drug arrests in 2015. And up to 75 percent of those detained were black and brown teens and young adults under 29 years of age.
Marijuana prohibition is responsible for rampant violent crime and corruption, illicit markets that neither protect consumers nor contribute taxes, and the racist criminalization of entire communities of color who shoulder the burden of the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. Introduced in the US in the 1930s thanks to fear-mongering and anti-Mexican prejudice, and subsequently exported to the rest of the world, prohibition currently provides the pretext for selective law-enforcement and police murders—both of them much bigger threats to young people’s wellbeing than marijuana itself.
Of course, we all want to protect our children from any kind of harm. So what’s a parent to do?
Concerned adults everywhere now question whether the punitive policies of the last century are justified or effective. But the litany of alarmist warnings about marijuana that we’ve all been exposed to make it hard to know what to believe. Over many decades, anti-marijuana campaigns like Reefer Madness, “Just Say No” and “This is Your Brain…” have obfuscated the facts and juxtaposed rational concerns onto an irrational set of policies to which, we were always told, there was no alternative.
Those campaigns exploited the fact that none of us relish the idea of our kids using any non-prescribed drug. Yet if abstinence for kids is our aim, what we do isn’t working now and hasn’t for decades: Over 40 percent of high schoolers have used marijuana by the time they graduate.
Drug education is rarely based on what works, but instead, on stakeholder agendas. The best/worst example of this is DARE. Developed by LAPD Chief Darryl Gates in the 1980s and once used in 75 percent of schools nationally, reports of its ineffectiveness caused it to fall out of favor.
Yet although DARE itself no longer dominates the prevention field, its zero-tolerance ethos persists—along with a fatalistic perspective of youth that stigmatizes those children who do use marijuana, denying them understanding, dignity and practical advice. By thereby teaching kids to lie and hide risky behaviors from us, we make it much less likely that they ever come to us for help. Zero-tolerance approaches cannot engender the deeper understanding we need of the complexities of young people’s lives.
What’s more, when we use scare tactics to “educate” young people about marijuana—which can, like any drug, be used problematically, but has not, used alone, caused any overdose deaths.
Marijuana is emphatically not a “gateway” drug—by telling our kids that it is, destroys our credibility as educators and role-models.
The schism between what we often tell young people about marijuana and their own observations is so great that it only breeds cynicism, mistrust and even more curiosity. If we were lying about that, kids are entitled to ask, were we also lying when we advised against other drug use and risky behaviors?
Now more than ever, parents and educators need reality-based policies that challenge the cynical notion that “there is no alternative” to the war on drugs trademark zero-tolerance approach. We believe that another world is indeed possible.
For the record, I do not endorse underage marijuana use. Abstinence or delaying use is the always the best choice for youth.
But experience makes it very clear that many kids will use marijuana or other substances even if we tell them not to. And my message to parents is, discussing marijuana should be based in truth—even when the truth is uncomfortable. We must give young people the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves. Mottos for 21st-century drug education should include: “Safety First” and “Just Say Know.”
The repeal of marijuana prohibition, which is happily well under way and gathering pace, is a chance for us to replace ineffective fear-based and punitive ideologies with sensible educational approaches that work at a time when children needs their parents most.
It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the legal regulation of marijuana specifically helps parents.
Legal regulation provides a framework ensuring real control over age restrictions, packaging, vendors and outlets. Responsible adults will have better ways to limit young people’s access to it than now.
Ending punitive marijuana policies eliminates the criminalization of our children and the life-altering consequences of a criminal record—above all for youth of color.
Regulation shrinks the illicit market and related crime, while generating new tax revenues that will provide dedicated funding (at a time when there is little money for youth education) to develop innovative tools that empower parents and educators to help kids effectively if trouble arises. And it eliminates current restrictions blocking the objective scientific research needed to better understand marijuana’s medical benefits for adults and kids.
Imagine if your own child developed a real problem with marijuana. What would be more helpful: a visit to a qualified professional, or a criminal record?
The fact is, restricting adult freedom does not protect kids from harm. Instead, the inherent hypocrisy and prejudice of prohibition undermines parents’ ability to raise ethical, law-abiding young citizens.
No, we don’t want our kids to do drugs. But they still deserve our love and support if they do. And any responsible parent should want to dismantle a brutal system that has devastated countless families and communities by feeding generations of their children into the prison-industrial meat grinder.
As parents, fighting for equity, liberty and justice by ending marijuana’s use as a tool of oppression is a wonderful thing we can do to set an example, declare who we are and reassure our youth that a fairer, more rational world is possible.
Jerry Otero (aka Mista Oh) is the founder and chief troublemaker at cre8tivetyouthink.org. Trained as a psychologist, he has served as the youth policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance and supervisor of NYC public high school drug education programs.