One of the most urgent questions surrounding Washington’s legalization of marijuana is the affect it will have on teenagers. Researchers say teens often see marijuana as “natural” and “safer than alcohol.” Many adults who consider themselves addicts supported legalization, but not because they think marijuana is risk-free.
Michael is in his 50s now. He smoked pot steadily for 33 years, starting when he was growing up in Ohio at age 15. His parents never found out about his smoking or the risks he took to get marijuana. He said, “A couple of times I would tell my parents I’m borrowing their car to go to my friend’s house and I would drive four states over to visit a friend who said they had some pot. I would go and smoke a bowl with them and they would give me a bud to take home and I’d drive back that night. I did that several times.”
Michael asked that only his first name be used, to protect his identity and his livelihood. He said as time went on, he organized his life to accommodate his love of pot. And he thought of it as his choice, even when the effects seemed drastic. “I would cough so much that I couldn’t stop and I’d fall to my knees and fall on all four hands and cough up this black gunk and almost pass out,” he said. “And then when I was finally able to start breathing again, I would stand up and start breathing again, and my reaction would be, ‘That was some damn good pot.’ And then I’d do it again.”
Four years ago, though, Michael said his routine came to a screeching halt. He was laid off from work, in debt, and isolated. “For me, I just reached a point where I wasn’t anywhere that I wanted to be at my age,” he said. “And I finally realized I didn’t have all the answers.” A friend suggested that he check out the group, Marijuana Anonymous. He went to a meeting and felt a shock of recognition at the stories he heard.
Michael considers himself an addict. He voted for Initiative 502 because he considers marijuana legalization a better choice than sending people to jail. But he doesn’t use pot anymore, and he thinks it’s irresponsible for celebrities to tout marijuana as being harmless.
“Saying those kinds of things encourages people,” he said. “In my case, when I was young if I heard somebody say something like that I’d always throw it back at my parents as proof that they’re wrong.”
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. For people under 21, it’s still illegal under state law. But those celebrity endorsements and changes in law may affect how teenagers view marijuana, according to Denise Walker, an associate professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work. “I think the most current data suggest that kids do believe that marijuana is less risky,” she said, “and I think research pretty reliably shows that when risk perception goes down, that use goes up.”
There still is not consensus on whether marijuana is addictive. However, many scientists agree there’s a chance that long-term use of marijuana can lead to addiction. Walker explained that users can build up a tolerance and experience withdrawal symptoms. Research suggests that about 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted; that’s a smaller percentage than for users of alcohol and other drugs. But younger and more frequent users face the highest risks.
Walker personally opposed I-502 as too big of a step, although her colleagues’ opinions were “very mixed” about it. “I do believe that 502 is a pretty thoughtful measure, or at least tried to be, and creates some protections around doing this from a public health policy rather than just a ‘pie in the sky, nothing’s wrong with marijuana’ approach,” she said.
The public health component will come from the tax revenue charged by state-licensed stores. The revenue will be earmarked for prevention and treatment. Walker runs a program called the Teen Marijuana Check-Up in six Seattle high schools. It invites teenagers to talk to counselors about their marijuana use. But Walker said if you want to help teens, you have to avoid the stigma of calling it “treatment.”
Lucy Davis agreed. She’s a senior at Roosevelt High School who also volunteers as a counselor to other teens. She said most people she knows find the idea of marijuana addiction laughable. “I think a lot of teens think, that’s so stupid, you can’t be addicted to marijuana. And the idea of Marijuana Anonymous is like the older generation trying to make it more serious of a drug than it is,” she said.
Even so, there are chapters of Marijuana Anonymous specifically for teens in Seattle. But Davis said she’s excited to watch the experiment of legalized marijuana play out. And Michael agrees.
He admits he felt wistful watching people gather at the Space Needle to celebrate the new law. “I was a little nostalgic about it actually,” he said. “At one time I would have been there with them, and it probably would have been very fun."
Michael said during all those years that he was smoking pot, life seemed drained of color without it. After he quit, he went to see the B-52s at the Woodland Park Zoo’s outdoor concert series, but he was worried he wouldn’t enjoy it. “I went to the first concert in my life sober and had a great time. As I started building up these experiences of finding I could enjoy things I didn’t think I’d be able to, and be able to remember them, that kept me going. That was the payoff for me,” he explained.
Michael said members of his recovery group have wondered whether I-502 could lead to more marijuana users, and more people ultimately seeking help. If so, Michael said he’ll try to be there for them.
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