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caption: Researchers say this ad targeting fears about marijuana use drew a high response. 
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Researchers say this ad targeting fears about marijuana use drew a high response.
Credit: (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington)

Marijuana Taxes May Not Be Used For Prevention As Campaign Promised

Update: Two days after this story was published, on Tuesday, June 30, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Washington’s state budget. The new budget includes $20 million over the next two years for drug prevention and education.

The campaign to legalize marijuana promised that almost a quarter of the taxes from those sales would fund education and prevention efforts.

And pot is selling well: Washington state’s marijuana retail stores are selling over $1 million worth of marijuana a day.

That has added up to more than $60 million in taxes this fiscal year. But the state legislature hasn’t allocated any of that money to state agencies.

Those tax proceeds are sitting untouched and unspent. All there is to show for education are two radio ads that were produced for free by Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“Now that it’s legal for those over 21, it’s more important than ever to talk to your kids about the risks of marijuana,” Dr. Leslie Walker tells listeners.

Walker is the hospital’s chief of adolescent medicine. She says the state’s lack of a prevention campaign around marijuana unfortunately did not surprise her.

“We saw the same thing with the tobacco money,” Walker said. “A lot of states, as soon as it became open to send it other places from prevention, they did. So I did not think this was going to be any different and it appears it will not be.”

Walker said treatment programs need state funding – urgently. Marijuana use is the most prevalent reason for youth to seek treatment, ahead of alcohol and other drugs.

“We don’t have space for people right now,” she said. “It’s hard to find other places for them to go because many places have closed their adolescent treatment programs.”

Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana around the same time as Washington, has taken a different route. Last year the state allocated millions of dollars for prevention, education and treatment. Advocates said that ideally, the public information campaign would have started before pot became legal.

Now the funds are building up in state coffers, as legislators eye them for other purposes. Kevin Haggerty heads the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington's School of Social Work. He said legislators should honor the promises of I-502.

“The intent of I-502 was to add new revenues to increase treatment and increase prevention in Washington state,” he said.

Haggerty said there’s a good middle ground between pot prohibition and completely open access. But prevention and education programs are part of striking that balance. A recent federally funded study from Haggerty’s group found that Washington parents were eager to sign up for Facebook groups that would help them talk to their kids about marijuana.

So far, state agencies have scraped together less than $1 million to distribute ads like the ones from Children’s Hospital – all aimed at preventing kids from using marijuana. But at this point research hasn’t indicated a dramatic change in use by teens. Instead it’s adult use that may be changing.

Rick Kosterman is a UW research scientist with the Seattle Social Development Project, a study that began tracking a group of 10-year-olds in Seattle in 1985. Kind of like the documentary series “7 Up,” researchers check in with subjects every six years. They’re now in their late 30s.

In 2014, Kosterman found that the roughly one-third of adults who have used marijuana are using much more frequently.

“We looked at their interviews from six years ago and we found a dramatic increase in their use, actually a doubling of their use from about five times a month to about 10 times a month,” he said.

He said the findings were in contrast to the usual trends around drug use: a decline as people get older and settle into jobs and families.

“It was a big surprise to me because I thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting if there might be a little change here,” in the wake of legalization. “I thought that’s probably unlikely at this age but when we started to look at the data it was a real ‘Wow,’” he said.

And some of those people admit to driving while high.

“Among the users there was a fairly high rate of those who said they had driven under the influence of marijuana in the past year; I think it was a third of them that said that,” he said. “From a public safety prevention perspective, that’s very concerning.”

His colleague Kevin Haggerty said the increased use may be a “blip” reflecting the novelty of legal marijuana rather than a lasting trend. He said he hopes the state will fund long-term research to help keep tabs on Washington’s marijuana experiment.