Young People and Cannabis Use
With the passage of Proposition 64, California voters gave legal status to the fast-growing and highly profitable marijuana industry.
In a very short period of time, we have gone from “reefer madness” to the view that cannabis is medicinal, or harmless. Medical marijuana has proven health benefits, and as research continues, it is likely that researchers will identify more health benefits. Many are recommending that medical marijuana replace opioids as the go-to medication for chronic pain. Compared to opioids, cannabis is far less addictive and presents little or no risk of overdose and death.
While cannabis use can help alleviate certain conditions, it does pose a health risk for children, adolescents and pregnant women.
In 2014, The New England Journal of Medicine published an overview of health research to date on the health risks of marijuana use. These risks include:
- Poor educational outcomes, with increased likelihood of dropping out of school
- Cognitive impairment with lower IQ among those who are frequent users during adolescence
- Increased risks of chronic psychosis disorders, including schizophrenia
- Addiction (in about 9% of users overall, 17% of those who begin use in adolescence, and 25% to 50% of those who are daily users)
- Increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke
- Respiratory problems including chronic bronchitis and pneumonia
- Low birth weights with newborns whose mothers use marijuana
- The earlier a child or adolescent starts using marijuana, the greater the risk of problem use and addiction
- Young people who are frequent users can experience delayed brain development, can struggle more in school and experience diminished life satisfaction.
- Young people who are heavy users are at greater risk for a range of mental health issues.
Marijuana and Race
For decades, marijuana policy has been a primary driver of the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of people of color. Mass incarceration has broken apart families, separated children from parents, increased child poverty and created a lifelong second-class status for many parents due to felony convictions. This devastation has particularly hit the African American community. According to the ACLU, African Americans have been arrested at rates 3.7 times greater than Whites for marijuana-related crimes.[i]
The passage of Prop 64 marked a big step forward in a 20 year long process of legalization and represented a huge win for the primarily white-owned legal marijuana industry. However, for many of those whose lives were damaged by the War on Drugs, the legalization of marijuana presents a painful contradiction. The very product that separated and impoverished families of color is now creating wealth for mostly white entrepreneurs and investors, a population relatively untouched by the War on Drugs.
Policymakers owe a debt to the black and brown communities that were disproportionately impacted during the Drug War and should dedicated the new wealth generated by legal marijuana represents to repair some of the harm. Marijuana tax revenues represent an opportunity for our society to reinvest in children and youth in the communities most damaged by criminalization. These revenues can support youth development, prevention, education and treatment to reduce marijuana use among youth and to provide early mental health services and other forms of preventative services to children.