Don’t expect kids to have a lot easier access to pot under the state’s new law allowing adults to possess an ounce of marijuana.
Teens already report that they can score weed pretty easily. In Washington, 66 percent of high-school seniors surveyed last year said it’s “very easy” or “sort of easy” to get.
And a new national survey says teens wouldn’t change their behavior much if they could buy and consume legal marijuana.
Bigger changes will come, said Jonathan Caulkins, a state consultant on marijuana policy, when for-profit companies start marketing pot, something that’s never been done before; and if they try to dilute regulations, something done by alcohol and tobacco industries, he said.
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Sponsors of the new law planned for some challenges. They created a new standard for driving stoned, selling to minors remains a felony, and state-regulated retail stores, to open next spring, can’t be within 1,000 feet of places frequented by youth.
Wary of a Big Marijuana industry, sponsors also earmarked most of the tax revenues from recreational pot for health care, education, prevention and research into the new law’s consequences.
As state officials write proposed rules for the recreational system, the law’s chief author, Alison Holcomb, has joined with public-health and minority advocates in urging additional restrictions to youth access.
In comments sent to regulators this week, Holcomb and others called for product safety, such as childproof packaging for pot-infused edibles and liquids.
Taking lessons from the alcohol and tobacco industries, they also called for tight restrictions on marketing, particularly images that might entice youth to use.
And they want the state to require counter-marketing — including prevention and treatment messages — at retail stores.
“The goal is to improve upon our experiences with alcohol and tobacco, not repeat them,” Holcomb said.
Tobacco use among high-school students has dropped in recent decades. Along with higher prices, many credit counter-marketing, funded by a government settlement with tobacco companies, for much of that change.
But it wasn’t finger-wagging that cigarettes were for adults only, or warnings that they’d die at 50, that swayed kids away from tobacco.
No, according to Caulkins and Lisa Sharp, health-intervention supervisor at Seattle Public Schools, kids were persuaded by messages that said the tobacco industry was trying to manipulate them.
“Kids value their autonomy and don’t like big bad corporations,” said Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of a book about pot legalization.
Tobacco companies were not hard to vilify. “I don’t know if you can do that with marijuana companies,” he said, because pot dealers have something of a romantic Robin Hood image.
Pot presents other challenges. There is no known fatal dose. Research does not clearly show pot causes cancer, according to the book co-authored by Caulkins, an opponent of legalization.
Kids know Barack Obama became president even though he smoked weed in high school, Sharp said.
“Our history is to shape our drug education to be skewed and to scare,” said Roger Roffman, University of Washington professor emeritus and a marijuana-dependence researcher. “And that very skewing pulls out credibility from the message.”
High-school students seem to sense that regular marijuana use can compound, if not cause, problems such as lack of ambition. In last year’s health survey, Seattle high-school seniors said smoking pot regularly was twice as risky as using it once or twice.
In a New Zealand study that Roffman, a sponsor of the legal pot law, points to as particularly credible, moderate-to-heavy pot use in adolescents was associated with stunted IQ later in life. This suggests pot can damage the developing brain.
If it were up to him, Caulkins said, he’d miss no opportunity in public-health messages to portray the pot industry as another big business going after dependent users to make money.
And he’d stress something else:
The leaders in the pro-pot movement are “all 60-year-old men,” he said. “They look as uncool as any group you could think of. I’d put up an ad saying, ‘These are the people behind the users.’ ”
Such a strategy suggests another way to counter a law that suddenly says it’s OK for adults to consume pot after decades of dire warnings.
“Maybe we can make marijuana the parents’ drug, which may be a good way to make teens forget it,” Caulkins said.
Still time to plan
Public-health advocates have time to devise strategies because state-sanctioned pot stores won’t open until next spring. Caulkins expects the new marijuana companies to be too small and fragmented to start with big advertising budgets.
Some, such as Derek Franklin of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention, would like to see a complete ban on marijuana advertisements. But constitutional protections of free speech would likely prevent that, said Holcomb, a lawyer.
No one has figured out how to prevent pot merchants from marketing through social media, Caulkins added.
Public-health advocates have focused on securing the stores, Franklin said, and taking care of other basics.
The state-licensed retail outlets will have surveillance cameras, tight security and identification checks, and the state will run sting operations to make sure they aren’t selling to minors.
Legal pot should come with warning labels that list potential side effects and say the product “may be habit forming,” according to Holcomb’s group. Promotional displays would be prohibited at stores, which could have only one outdoor sign, limited to about 6 feet by 2 feet.
In-store counter-marketing should include information on keeping pot away from children and a number for the Washington Poison Center, the group says.
Health advocates also want state restrictions on pot advertising like those on the liquor industry. That means no advertising in school media, no sound trucks, regulations on outdoor ads and industry sponsorship of public events, and restrictions on promotions through contests, competitive events and coupons.
They also want to ban advertising images, such as cartoon characters and animation, that appeal to youth.
“That drives me nuts,” said Holcomb, a parent.
Brendan Kennedy, president of Leafly, a company that reviews marijuana strains, said he and his partners have already vowed not to use certain images, such as Yoda and a winged topless nymph they’ve seen in other pot ads.
You won’t see unicorns, bikinis or “plant porn” in Leafly ads, Kennedy added.
Franklin said there’s another big challenge to limiting youth access to weed — the largely unregulated, lightly taxed medical-marijuana system. It allows minors to be patients and possess up to 1.5 pounds of weed.
And, 39 percent of Seattle high-school students who reported using pot last year said it came from a medical-marijuana dispensary.
A group of minority activists has called for state lawmakers to revise Washington’s medical-marijuana law to meet the same rules as the recreational system; or, at least, be subject to similar rules.
Roffman believes we’ll see an increase in youth use of marijuana initially when the recreational market opens — but not a big one.
The norm, he noted, is for most teens to avoid pot; 23 percent of Seattle high-school students reported in last year’s survey they used it in the previous month.
Jason Kilmer, UW assistant director of health and wellness, points to the new “Monitoring the Future” national study that asked high-school seniors what they’d do if marijuana became legal in their states.
Most said they would be little impacted by legalization. Only 8 percent said they would use it more often than they now do, while 11 percent said they would probably try it, if legal.
It’s not easy to interpret the results, Kilmer said. They could reflect less fear of getting in trouble, an increase in perceived approval from parents or other adults, or other variables. It’s also hard to know how measures of intentions to use will translate to actual use.
But with almost one-fifth of seniors saying they’re likely to use more pot if it’s legal, “this highlights the importance of education and prevention in the state of Washington,” Kilmer said.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org