Marijuana is legal for adults to use in four states and the District of Columbia, and more jurisdictions are posed to join in the near future. With this change, there is growing interest in how the new legal status of marijuana will affect children and teens.
Washington’s I-502 campaign suggested that regulating marijuana would be more successful at limiting youth access to marijuana than its prohibition. The argument, in part, is that black market dealers don’t ID. There is historical evidence to support this notion; namely, that under the prohibition of alcohol youth drinking spiked, and after repeal of prohibition youth drinking dropped significantly and swiftly. Regulation is a worthy of serious consideration, because prohibition hasn’t curbed use, and teens have been reporting that marijuana is easier to access than alcohol for nearly a decade.
Even though Washington and Colorado passed legalization ballot measures in 2012, regulated sales only began in 2014, and the data is preliminary. That said, Colorado’s data has shown a slight decrease in teen use. This is not to suggest legalization caused the decline, but rather pointing out the opposite; a huge spike in teen use did not occur.
In Colorado, some funds from the tax and license fees collected from regulated cannabis sales go to public service education campaigns. The first iteration targeted youth and was not particularly well received. The lab rat campaign featured depictions of teens as rats in cages. The message was that there are unknown effects of marijuana use on the teen brain and that they ought not become the subjects of experimental use akin to lab rats. The campaign was criticized for using incarceration imagery and scare tactics, two approaches that had not proven to be successful at decreasing teen use in the past.
Colorado’s second major campaign launched in January of 2015. At a cost of more than $5 million dollars, this campaign takes a lighter tone. The “Good to Know” campaign is much more straight-forward and fact based. It targets all users and responds to survey data that suggests that fewer than 1/3 of Coloradoans know the regulatory limits such as no underage use and that you can’t take Colorado marijuana products outside the state. “Good to Know” has been better received. It uses bright colors and rhyming messages like: “For those underage, it’s just not OK. Their brains are still growing, so keep it away.”
So, can the regulation of cannabis reduce teen use? And what education approaches are best suited at minimizing youth use? The answer to another question, what doesn’t work, is far easier. Some people have suggested that the most well-known approach to date, the D.A.R.E. program from Office of National Drug Control Policy (the so-called drug czar’s office), backfired. That program famously used fried eggs to suggest your brain would be scrambled if you used drugs. It conflated heroin with marijuana use, and it asked school children to turn in their parents. For many children, that program was terrifying. When the same children tried marijuana later in life only to find it did not make them melt into the couch or become victim to sexual assault, they discredited the entire campaign, making them more likely to try potentially dangerous drugs.
What types of campaigns have worked? Take a look at the evolving anti-tobacco campaigns. After lawsuits separated the money for public service anti-smoking ad campaigns from the tobacco companies themselves, a new era of anti-smoking campaigns emerged. The new approaches tested mini-campaigns and then used data to craft campaigns that actually reduced use in minors. This included sowing how ugly smoking can make someone, how bad it is bad for your looks, your teeth, your skin, and your breath. Honesty in the campaign has been instrumental in its demonstrable success of finally reducing teen tobacco use. Perhaps campaigns aimed at reducing cannabis use by teens ought to look back at any campaigns that reduced teen use in tobacco or alcohol.
These campaigns can only hope to do so much. Likely the most important factor in determining if a child will abuse alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana is what they see and hear from their parents. As a result, education and outreach programs should target parents and teachers as often as they target youth themselves. Equipping parents and caretakers with facts to tackle the hard questions and provide a strategy for engagement would be useful. As new states adopt regulations, they should fund education modeled after successful campaigns. The more firmly we are based in truth, evidence, and fact, the better the policies and the better the outcome.