The debate about whether to legalize marijuana has gone on for several decades. Both sides of the argument feel passionately about the position they defend. Advocates for marijuana legalization tout its potential in the advances of medicine along with what they describe as safe and consequence-free pleasure. Opponents view marijuana as a dangerous drug that creates a gateway to abuse of “harder” and potentially more dangerous drugs. No matter the opinion of anyone involved, what is often overlooked is the effect of the debate on the adolescent attitude toward marijuana use. The current approach to the drug problem is not working. For the well being of teenagers simply making pot legal may not be the answer.
The so-called “War on Drugs” has not produced the desired result of decreased drug abuse; in fact use of some drugs has increased exponentially. According to U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske (2010), “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.” More money continues to be spent on this failed policy as more and more citizens succumb to the problem of substance abuse. It has become clear that the strategy being used has not been effective nor has it reduced the rate of abuse among adolescents.
Since the 1990s several states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Many see this as a positive change. They feel marijuana is a benign substance and its benefits outweigh any negative effects. Recently, states such as Colorado have either decriminalized marijuana or are in the process of relaxing laws pertaining to the drug. For years, marijuana advocates have complained that the criminalization of the drug is unnecessary and many marijuana users are unfairly jailed. There is a belief that the marijuana abuser is causing no problems for anyone else. Because of this belief the punishment of these people is considered disproportionate.
One ethical dilemma in reference to relaxed marijuana laws centers on the danger this change in perception creates for adolescents and young adults. A responsible society places value on the care for its most vulnerable members.This includes children and adolescents. Adults must remember that adolescent drug abuse could be damaging to society as a whole. Drug abuse often begins with marijuana use. The potential for an adolescent who uses marijuana to progress to more dangerous drug use is very high. This substance abuse problem can lead to the destruction of family, disregard for other laws, physical problems, and death.
Often adults ignore that young people model their behavior. Adolescents view adult behavior as a means to gain social acceptance. An adult may be able to practice virtuous behavior such as moderation. An adolescent who is simply imitating the behavior of an adult doesn’t necessarily value any virtuous actions such as moderation or temperance. He or she simply has the hedonistic drive to experience pleasure. Because of this drive the teenager will take whatever actions are necessary to feel as good as possible in the quickest manner available. On the surface this may not sound dangerous, but in reality young people are not as aware of consequences as adults.
Many teenagers now see marijuana as being safe because of its medical use (Conaboy, 2012). Some might conclude that medicine simply provides relief to patients in need. Relief brings pleasure to both the patient and those providing care. Therefore, all involved benefit from this particular medicine. However, it is important to take into account the potential for abuse of any medicine. One needs simply to recognize the epidemic of prescription pain killer abuse. When examining the potential danger for adolescents and young people the question of whether there are medicinal benefits to marijuana or not has no relevance.
The change in perception creates danger for adolescents who believe marijuana to be both safe and beneficial. This difference in perception is evident in young people who currently use marijuana. Prior use of marijuana provides a change in perception as well. Adolescents who have used marijuana in the past, along with those who currently use, believe marijuana is less dangerous than heroin or alcohol (Plancherel etal. 2005). More teenagers are at risk of developing a problem with marijuana abuse today because the public perceives the drug as being less dangerous than harder drugs, the way teenagers think about marijuana has changed, and more teenagers are using marijuana.
Many in today’s culture believe marijuana use carries little risk. Having used marijuana at some point in their lives, many adults believe the drug did not adversely affect them. Some experts warn of the danger associated with this permissive attitude toward marijuana. In his book Beyond The Yellow Brick Road: Our Children and Drugs, Bob Meehan (2000) says: “Perceiving pot smoking as a harmless distraction, simply because its effects aren’t as violent as such “serious”drugs as heroin, represents a failure to connect the act with its implications and long-term consequences” (p. 79). Not everyone who experiments with marijuana develops a problem. This does not mean that use of the drug doesn’t put people at risk. In fact, researchers are beginning to discover some serious dangers associated with smoking marijuana. Alfonso and Dunn (2007) cited research conducted in reference to lung damage caused by smoking marijuana:
Research conducted in order to elucidate the negative effects of smoking marijuana have found that the lung damage associated with smoking one marijuana cigarette is tenfold that of smoking one tobacco cigarette, and that this damage also could lead to lung cancer (Alfonso and Dunn as cited in Sussman, Dent, andSimon, 1996, 2007)
Information such as this is alarming, particularly when coupled with adolescents’ evolving opinion about the drug.
Teenagers have changed how they view marijuana use. Fewer adolescents see marijuana as being dangerous. As the adolescent view of marijuana’s risk has shifted, the rate of adolescent marijuana use has increased (Joffe, Yancy, 2004). The changes in the legal status of the drug contribute to this perception. In 2004, Joffe and Yancy clearly stated,“legalization of marijuana could decrease adolescents’ perceptions of the risk of use and increase their exposure to this drug” (p. e636). An increasing number of people advocate the use of medicinal marijuana. Adolescents are aware of this fact. They see medicine as something helpful. To them the message is clear: pot is medicine, therefore, how can it be dangerous? A part of the danger in this change in perception is that teenagers are still developing mentally and forming their personalities. Because they are more likely to abuse marijuana due to a change in perception about the drug, it is important to pay attention to the messages they are receiving.
As the laws regarding marijuana have softened, the numbers of adolescents who experiment with the drug have increased. According to a report by Alain Joffe and W. Samuel Yancy, “it is the youngest adolescents (those who have not yet tried marijuana or are in the experimentation phase) who would be affected most by changes in marijuana laws” (Joffe, Yancy, 2004). In today’s world the availability of drugs, combined with the general attitude that teenagers will experiment, have contributed to this higher number. “More young people are experimenting with marijuana, raising the absolute numbers of those who will become habitual users” (Frum, 2012, para. 9). Habitual use leads to more young people experiencing the problems that come along with any kind of dependency. Many of these young people do not experience the emotional growth that comes with adolescence because they anesthetize their emotional pain. The combination of the hindering of cognitive development that results from marijuana abuse, and the lack of emotional maturation, adds to many of the social problems of today. Until there is a decrease in the number of adolescents using marijuana, the accompanying problems will increase. The vicious cycle is: as more teenagers use marijuana, their perception of the seriousness of the drug decreases, and more teenagers start using marijuana.
Marijuana is no longer viewed as being a serious drug. There has definitely been a shift in public perception. Along with this general shift is the change in the adolescent view of marijuana. Kids have a difficult time seeing anything medicinal as being negative. More teenagers are using marijuana today than in the past. As these numbers increase, more arelikely to develop a problem with the drug. As much as the public has focused on relaxing marijuana laws, more attention needs to be paid to the potential ramifications on adolescents.
All adults have an ethical responsibility to providean example to young people and children. As much as people would like to believe the “I’m not a role model” mantra, the fact is that young people look to those who are older as an example of how to act. Far too many adults today are focused primarily on how they will experience pleasure in their lives. Putting marijuana users in jail is not the answer. Making marijuana legal is not the answer either. It is of utmost importance that we as adults be aware of the consequences of our words and actions. If it is important that our young people receive the message that abuse of marijuana is not o.k., the laws making marijuana illegal must be maintained. The punishment is definitely out of proportion with the crime and that can be modified. This would provide the right message to adolescents.
Alfonso,J. & Dunn, M.E. (2007). Differences inthe marijuana expectancies of adolescents in relation to marijuana use. SubstanceUse & Misuse, 42 (6),1009-1025. 10.1080/10826080701212386
Conaboy,C. (2012, September 24). Does medical marijuana change how teens view the drug? The Boston Globe.Retrieved January 26, 2013 from http://www.bostonglobe.com
Frum, D. (2012, December 24). Weed whacked. Newsweek, 160 (25), 22 Retrieved January24, 2013 from http://www.newsweek.com/david-frum-perils-legalizing-pot-63599
Joffe, A. & Yancy, W.S. (2004). Legalization ofmarijuana: potential impact on youth. Pediatrics,113 (6), e632-e638. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.org
Meehan,B. (2000). Beyond the yellow brick road:Our children and drugs. Roswell, Ga: Meek.
Plancherel,B., Bolognini, M., Stéphan, P., Laget, J., Chinet, L., Bernard, M., &Halfon, O. (2005). Adolescent’s beliefs about marijuanause: a comparison of regular users, past users, and never/occasional users. Journal of Drug Education, 35 (2),131-146. http://baywood.com