Ever since 1996, when California became the first state to recognize marijuana as a medicine, drug warriors have been warning that loosening legal restrictions on cannabis “sends the wrong message” to the youth of America, encouraging them to use a drug they would otherwise avoid. Twenty years later, with marijuana legal for medical or recreational use in two dozen states and the nation’s capital, there is little evidence that adolescents have responded in the way pot prohibitionists predicted. In fact, data from government-sponsored surveys show that teenagers are less likely to use marijuana and, if they do, less likely to abuse it than they were before this sea change in state policy.
“How can we expect our children to reject drugs when some authorities are telling them that illegal drugs should no longer remain illegal, but should be used instead to help the sick?” Thomas Constantine, then head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, asked just before the California vote in 1996. “We cannot afford to send ambivalent messages about drugs.”
John Walters, George W. Bush’s drug czar, likewise cited the purported threat to teenagers when he urged voters to reject medical marijuana initiatives. Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s first drug czar, took up the same theme. “We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine,” he complained in 2010. “So it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana.”