.Lancet Develops Reefer Madness: Let’s Really Talk About Pot, School, Suicide, and Society

Get ready for another round of reefer madness.

This week, the journal Lancet published a study on daily teen marijuana use and purported correlations to dropping out of high school, not finishing college, and committing suicide.

The study is loaded with problems, and comes with weak conclusions from the researchers, but that isn’t stopping the media from running incendiary headlines equivalent to ‘Weed Causes 60 Percent Increase in Suicide.”

A couple things to keep in mind: The researchers did no original research, rather re-analyzed three other studies. And the researchers’ own summary in no way jibes with Lancet’s or the media’s hype. And, crucially, the purported correlations between daily pot use and ill effects are more drug policy-related correlations than drug-related.

Here’s the setup — researchers in Australia and New Zealand ran a “meta-analysis” on three other studies, looking at about 4,000 young teens who used pot seven days a week, finding they were more likely to drop out of high school, drop out of college, or attempt suicide.

But there’s a big red flag in the study’s summary: The paper’s own researchers issue this boilerplate, dry, cautious summary as follows.

“Adverse sequelae of adolescent cannabis use are wide ranging and extend into young adulthood. Prevention or delay of cannabis use in adolescence is likely to have broad health and social benefits. Efforts to reform cannabis legislation should be carefully assessed to ensure they reduce adolescent cannabis use and prevent potentially adverse developmental effects.”

Translation: smoking pot every single day as a teenager can affect your future. It’s probably good if we prevent or delay kids from smoking pot. Changing pot laws should reduce teen pot use.

No one disagrees with that.

This summary in no way jibes with Lancet’s PR hype, or the media reaction, which is basically: pot = suicide and legalization = more pot.

Read them on Google News: “Teen cannabis use linked to depression, suicide: report”; “Daily Pot Smokers 7 Times More Likely to Commit Suicide: Study”

The headlines use a common media fallacy — they imply a causation that the researchers explicitly avoid. Here’s their findings: “those who were daily users before age 17 years had clear reductions in the odds of high-school completion and degree attainment, and substantially increased odds of later cannabis dependence, use of other illicit drugs, and suicide attempt.”

But these correlations seem much more drug war-related than drug-related. It’s called the “third factor” fallacy. Let’s look at a few:

— Not finishing school? They expel you for weed.

— Not finishing college? They deny you financial aid if you get a weed ticket, kick you off campus and throw you off the water polo team.

— Later drug abuse and suicide attempts? Depression and drug use directly correlate to being poor and broke, which is more likely after you’ve been expelled from high school and college.

Lastly, who’s talking about giving weed to kids? No one wants that. And it is under prohibition that weed availability skyrocketed among teens.

Conversely, teen rates of tobacco use are at new lows thanks to education and regulation — not incarceration.

It’s Time to Talk
If you’re a teen smoking pot every single day, you have other things going on. You’re probably poorer than average, less likely to have both parents, and more likely to have suffered abuse and neglect. It’s prohibition’s policies that magnify these disadvantages — such as getting a criminal record because of pot use and the decreased opportunities in life as a result.

Stanton Peele writes for Substance.com that, “Addiction rates are higher in poor people — not because they are less moral or have greater access to drugs, but because they are more likely to experience childhood trauma, chronic stress, high school dropout, mental illness and unemployment, all of which raise the odds of getting and staying hooked.”

“Adolescents’ dose-dependent use of any intoxicants — be they legal or illegal — is typically a symptom rather than a cause of far greater, more deep-rooted issues worthy of societal intervention,” writes Paul Armentano, NORML’s Deputy Director and debunker in chief, in response to the Lancet article. “One would imagine that a similarly designed study focusing on daily adolescent users of alcohol would likely find similar negative outcomes compared to non-users.”

What’s really diabolical is how this paper is being used to prop up dying drug war regimes by implying that prohibition protect kids (it doesn’t) or legalization causes more teen use (it doesn’t). Here’s Lancet’s PR:

“The convincing results presented by Silins and colleagues are very valuable and highly appropriate at a time when several American states and countries in Latin America and Europe have decriminalised or legalised cannabis and allow unrestricted marketing of various formulations of the drug. (Not true.) Such changes in legislation will probably be followed by decreased prices and increased use, which will lead to more young people having difficulties with school completion and social and personal maturation, and will increase the risk of psychosis.”

Armentano has the rebuttal:

“There is little debate among experts that the use of cannabis by young people, in particular daily use of cannabis, ought to be discouraged — just as young people’s use of other potentially problematic intoxicants such as alcohol and tobacco ought to similarly be discouraged. But the presumption that criminalization cannabis adequately prevents or limits young people from gaining access to cannabis is demonstrably false. America’s nearly 100-year experience with marijuana prohibition demonstrates that criminalizing cannabis for adults has little if any impact on reducing teens’ access or consumption of the plant.”

For example, under prohibition, pot is widely available to teens in Australia. According to the Illicit Drug Reporting System, 91 percent of drug users in Australia found hydroponic cannabis “easy” or “very easy” to obtain while 84 percent found bush cannabis “easy” or “very easy” to obtain. There are similar figures for seventeen-year-olds in the United States (Monitoring the Future).

The black market does not card. Conversely, Colorado’s legal, 21-and-over pot shops have a 100 percent compliance rate for checking IDs at the door.

Look at booze and cigarettes, notes Armentano:

“By contrast, public policies regulating alcohol and tobacco – two substances that are objectively more harmful to the user than marijuana – have proven to be far more effective at reducing adolescents’ access and consumption of these products. According to federal government figures, self-reported alcohol consumption within the past 30 days among 12th graders has fallen from 75 percent in the late-1970s to 40 percent today. Tobacco use among 12th graders has similarly dropped, from 28 percent in the 1990s to just 16 percent today.

“These outcomes were not accomplished by instituting criminal prohibition, but rather by the imposition of legalization, regulation, and public education. Similarly, a public policy that regulates adult cannabis consumption but restricts its use among young people, via licensing regulations for sellers and the enforcement of age restrictions for consumers, best reduces the threats associated with the plant’s use or abuse by adolescents.”

“To continue to criminalize the marijuana plant and to arrest and prosecute those adults who consume it responsibly is a disproportionate public policy response to what is, at worst, a public health concern, not a criminal justice issue.”

What’s the most infuriating about this whole issue is how much it misses the point. If we want to keep kids in school, have them finish college and live happy lives — we’ve been doing the opposite of encouraging it as a society at large.

My generation has witnessed a historic assault on the poor in the name of drugs, a historic widening of the gap between rich and poor, as well as a historic divestment in public education, such that our public high schools are literally crumbling pipelines to prison, while universities grow increasingly expensive and out of reach.

My generation has been a guinea pig for “get tough on crime” policies that did nothing to lower drug use, but did their best to dissolve the bonds between a young marijuana user and his family, friends, school, employer, university, and society. It is this atomization that helps fuel drug use, says Amanda Reiman, a UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare lecturer and California director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“It’s a slow and steady marginalization,” says Reiman.

Since the year I was born, 1980, we’ve built one university and 22 prisons in California.

But no one wants to talk about that, Reiman said. For the media, a nuanced headline about a “potential correlation” gets no clicks, whereas one equating “pot use to suicide” is golden.

For the culture at large, taking a good long look in the mirror is unbearable. It’s much easier to just blame the victims.

Finally, if everything the Lancet study says is true, and daily teen pot use correlates to not finishing high school, not finishing college and attempting suicide — we should immediately cease the state-led victimization of such at-risk kids.

We should never expel them, but rather load up their schedules with activities and keep them in school. Get them help with underlying problems like mental illness, lack of supervision, abuse and neglect. Make college affordable. And make mental health care free.

But we wouldn’t dare do that.

Instead, we’re going to blame a plant. Again.

It’s pure, poisonous reefer madness.


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