Thursday, May 8, 2014

Marijuana, teenagers, and the law

This week I am taking a closer look at the many misperceptions about teenagers and marijuana that are included in a recent Seattle PI Pot Blog post.  Today, let’s look at the statement that teen marijuana use prevention has been stymied by “Fear of the law.  Fear of the consequences." 

Marijuana is still illegal for teenagers.
First of all, the law hasn’t changed for people under the age of 21.  If "fear" of the law decreases among teenagers post-legalization it will be because the law regarding minors is not enforced. 

Most teenagers think they will not get caught by police.
Among Seattle 10th grade students, 29% report that they think they would be caught by police if they used marijuana, according to the 2012 Healthy Youth Survey.  Statewide, 33% of 10th graders report that they’d be caught. Most Washington high school students do not fear getting caught by police if they use marijuana. 

Teenagers don’t go to jail for marijuana possession.
In King County, teenagers caught with marijuana are referred to a juvenile diversion program.  They do not go to jail.  In fact, Seattle Police cannot bring them to the precinct.  The diversion program requires that teenagers obtain an assessment from a community agency and that they follow assessment recommendations.  Most of the time, teenagers are referred to a one-day drug education class.  Sometimes, when the assessment identifies a chemical dependency problem, teenagers are referred to treatment to get the help they need.

The enforcement of laws affect teen drug use.
Community norms are the attitudes and policies that a community holds about drug use and are communicated to teens several ways including through laws, policies, and their enforcement.  When underage marijuana laws are not enforced, teenagers hear conflicting messages.  While parents and school-based prevention programs may teach them that marijuana use is to be avoided, key institutions may teach them that the community thinks teen marijuana use is acceptable by turning a blind eye.  These conflicting messages make it difficult for teenagers to decide which norms to follow.

Therefore, to be most effective, youth substance use prevention must include multiple activities conducted by multiple individuals and organizations.  We know that parents are the primary influence on their children, so they have a significant role to play.  We know that schools can provide evidence-based prevention programs.  But it is also important for law enforcement and juvenile justice systems to back what parents and schools are doing and send clear messages to teenagers that marijuana and other drug use will not be tolerated by the community.  

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