The nation’s top prosecutors don’t seem to be listening to the governments own scientists when it comes to marijuana. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that many missed this fall found from 2008-2017 treatment for cannabis use disorder (CUD) in the United States declined for adolescents — most significantly in states that have legalized marijuana for adult, recreational use.
These findings don’t seem to have made it into the hands, or at least the minds, of the nation’s top prosecutors who continue to believe — despite all evidence to the contrary — that the criminal justice system is critical to curbing youth marijuana abuse.
That was on full display earlier this month when the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and the Department of Justice hosted a webinar for prosecutors from all over the country.
Luke Niforatos, executive vice-president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), was the main presenter, which further codified the NDAA’s position on the matter. According to Niforatos, his organization — the nation’s loudest anti-cannabis group — is currently gearing up to fight ballot measures on legalization in several states across the country.
An opening presentation by Rachel Larsen, a senior attorney with the NDAA, stated that in 2019 there was a 2.8% increase from 2018 in marijuana use disorder in the same age group the CDC just studied.
“The juvenile justice system plays a key role in this problem,” Larsen told virtual attendees. “In fact, the juvenile justice system has untapped potential to serve as an early interception and turning point for youth with substance issues.”
If Larsen is correct and there was an increase in youth treatment for cannabis use disorder from 2018-2019, juvenile marijuana usage rates have been dropping all over the country for more than a decade.
The CDC study tracked admission to publicly funded, substance-abuse treatment facilities for youths aged 12-17. It found that there didn’t appear to be a correlation between medical marijuana and youth use, but that “seven of eight states with recreational legalization during the study period fall into the class with the steepest level of admissions decline.”
While the study’s authors declined to draw a direct link between legalization and youth treatment for cannabis use disorder, it did conclude: “Research suggests that a precipitous national decline in adolescent treatment admissions, particularly in states legalizing recreational marijuana use, is occurring simultaneously with a period of increasing permissiveness, decreasing perception of harm, and increasing adult use, regarding marijuana.”
After residents legalized cannabis in 2012, Colorado — the first state in the country to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use — has consistently reported lower youth usage rates in its biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.
“The reason that juvenile court is so important,” Larsen said, “is because juvenile court is a gatekeeper to the system.”
While it is difficult to consistently draw a direct causal link between youth encounters with the judicial system and adult criminal behavior, at-risk youth generally do better eliminating harmful behaviors with support through educational resources, social workers, family, and mentors rather than court appearances.
Or as the American Civil Liberties Union succinctly puts it in its study, America’s Addiction to Juvenile Justice: “Confining young people — cutting them off from their families, disrupting their educations, and often exposing them to further trauma and violence — harms their development and has lifelong negative consequences.”
Joseph Doyle, an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-authored a study focusing on the long-term outcomes of tens of thousands of teenagers in Illinois.
“We find that kids who go into juvenile detention are much less likely to graduate from high school and much more likely to end up in prison as adults,” the study concluded.
So as we look to minimize youth marijuana use, it is critical that we do it in a smart and effective way. Of all the approaches we have seen in terms of dealing with drug abuse, it is clear that by far the least effective is the criminal justice system.
Even Niforatos said, “We need to be thinking about how to get people who are living with addiction the help they need. If a kid is making a mistake at a young age and is falling into addiction we want to get that child help, and hopefully that child is not going to spend time in jail.”
As they continue to fight against marijuana legalization, what Niforatos and SAM don’t seem to realize is those are exactly the outcomes they are trying to preserve.
Prosecutors, particularly those that work in the juvenile justice system, are all not inherently bad people, and based on questions and comments offered during the presentation (as well as faith in humanity) most genuinely want to help the youths they encounter.
However, as the saying goes, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”