California voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana
The first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, California leads the country in decriminalizing the sale and use of cannabis. Other states are considering the issue, too, but critics warn of the impact on young people.
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Substance abuse activists say the headlong rush to legalization in this initiative has other motivations that ripple out in negative ways.Skip to next paragraph
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“Proponents of the proposed legislation are using the California fiscal crisis to say this will be a revenue-generating solution,” says Jim Hall, Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Drug Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “What has been largely ignored in the legalization meta-debate, however, is the impact the legislation could have on young people.”
“We have developed a clear model with alcohol, but when we debate the legalization of marijuana, we don’t address the potential lifelong impact that earlier and easier access will have on young people,” says Hall. “While the proposed legislation might generate a few tax dollars, we need to ask what the cost to society will be for a whole generation exposed to the risk of lifelong substance abuse.”
'Right of passage' for adolescents?
He says there needs to be a better way to change patterns of marijuana use as a rite of passage for adolescents. “Clearly, affording legal access distorts the message of why young people should not use marijuana. If it’s legal, what’s the big deal? So goes the mindset.”
Hall points out that for the last 20 years, nearly two-thirds of all first-time marijuana users have been below the age of 18. Statistics also show that the younger a person begins marijuana use, the greater the risk of substance abuse later in life, he says. Therefore, it’s important to ask a host of questions: Who is going to determine or regulate how marijuana is produced and distributed? Who will it be distributed by? How is the state going to collect the taxes? Will it really have an impact on the illicit trafficking and production of marijuana? Will this lead to proposals to legalize other drugs?
“This is a largely unexplored policy that raises important questions and potentially dire social risks,” says Hall. “Before changing policy, let’s honestly and thoroughly explore these questions.”
Initiative advocates point to safeguards
Dan Newman, spokesman for the proposed Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, counters that the initiative does includes significant safeguards and controls. For example, it will increase the penalty for providing marijuana to a minor, expressly prohibit the consumption of marijuana in public, forbids smoking marijuana while minors are present, and bans possession on school grounds.
He also says that studies by state tax experts – the Board of Equalization and the Legislative Analyst Office – show that the initiative will generate billions of dollars in revenue to fund schools, public safety, and other critical needs at a time when the state is desperate for resources.
“For those reasons, and the fact that most Californians understand that the current drug laws aren’t working, several recent polls show the initiative [will win] support from a majority of voters," says Newman. “We’re building a broad and diverse coalition that includes law enforcement professionals who understand that regulating marijuana will put street drug dealers and organized crime out of business, while allowing police to focus on protecting the public by preventing violent crime.”
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