Paul Armentano delivered this speech at NORML's 2008 National Conference, "It's Not Your Parents' Prohibition" in Berkeley, Calif.
Young people, in many cases those under 18 years of age, disproportionately bear the brunt of marijuana law enforcement.
Demographically speaking, the above statement is a "no-brainer." Yet this is hardly a fact that we as a reform community like to admit or emphasize. Instead, you'll hear reformers argue that the war on pot is a war on patients -- and at some level, it is. Or you'll hear advocates proclaim that marijuana enforcement disproportionately impacts African-Americans and Hispanics -- and to some degree, it does. Attend enough of these conferences and you'll inevitably hear that our movement needs better representation from women and minorities, both of whom face unique hardships because of the drug war, and that criticism is appropriate too. But, one thing you'll most likely never hear is that our movement needs greater involvement from teenagers and young adults.
But we should -- because for the young people in the audience, the war on pot smokers is really a war on you.
According to a 2005 study commissioned by the NORML Foundation, 74 percent of all Americans busted for pot are under age 30, and 1 out of 4 are age 18 or younger. That's nearly a quarter of a million teenagers arrested for marijuana violations each year. To put this bluntly, we now have an entire generation that has been alienated to believe that the police and their civic leaders are instruments of their oppression rather than their protection.
And the sad fact is: They're right!
Why is this the case? And why, as a community, don't we talk about it?
There are several reasons why young people are far more likely, statistically, to be busted for weed than those over age 30. Most obviously, young people are more likely than their counterparts to smoke pot, and toke more frequently. They're also more likely to indulge in places that will inadvertently attract law enforcement's attention: in parks, dorm rooms, cars, dimly lit parking lots. Let's face it, most teenagers aren't going to go home and smoke weed in their room while their parents are home, though if they did, it's far less likely they'd ever be arrested for it. (Of course, it's possible that their parents might face legal repercussions, but that's another story.)
Young people are also more likely to have frequent interactions with sellers of weed, an activity that also increases their likelihood of one day being arrested. Of course, it's not that young people enjoy hanging around drug dealers, but it's that young people typically have less disposable income, which means they have to buy their pot in smaller quantities on more frequent occasions.
Young people are also more likely to take risks -- and they're also more likely to commit traffic violations. Both these actions, though unrelated to marijuana per se, greatly increase the likelihood that young people will have face-to-face contact with law enforcement, and this contact often ends in a pot arrest.
So why then, if more than 650,000 Americans busted for weed annually are under age 30, don't we spend more time talking about it? Easy: because we've let our opponents hijack the "kids" issue.
There's a saying among reformers that drug law reform is the "third rail" of politics. If that's true, then talking about drugs and kids is the "third rail" of drug law reform. But it's a "rail" we need to start talking about.
Those who favor the continued prohibition of cannabis base their arguments on the false premise that the continued enforcement of said laws "protects our children." This statement is nonsense. In fact, just the opposite is true.
The war on weed endangers the health and safety of our children. It enables young people to have unregulated access to marijuana -- easier access than they currently have to legal, age-restricted intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco. It enables young people to interact and befriend pushers of other illegal, more dangerous drugs. It compels young people to dismiss the educational messages they receive pertaining to the potential health risks posed by the use of "hard drugs" and prescription pharmaceuticals, because kids say, "If they lied to me about pot, why wouldn't they be lying to me about everything else, too?"
Most importantly, the criminal laws are far more likely to result in having our children arrested and placed behind bars than they are likely to in any way discourage them to try pot.
These are the facts, and it's about time we start shouting them from the rooftops.
For three decades now, our opponents have framed this issue from the standpoint that they care more about the health and safety our young people than we do -- that we're just a bunch of self-centered potheads that are willing to sacrifice the lives of our young people so that we can catch a buzz. Well, it's time for us to respond.
Yes, we do favor changing the marijuana laws. We care about protecting the health and safety of our children, too. And by changing the laws, we are protecting the health and safety of America's young people. After all, under prohibition it's America's young people that are being lied to; it's our children that are being approached by drug dealers; it's our children that are smoking pot in cars and putting their lives and others at risk to try to avoid the detection of their parents or the law; and it's our children that are being busted in unprecedented numbers.
Finally, let me close with one final reason why we as a community must begin acknowledging this reality, and that is this: Even though young people suffer the most under our current marijuana laws, they lack the financial means and political capital to effectively influence politicians to challenge them. Young people also lack the money to adequately fund the drug law reform movement at a level necessary to adequately represent and protect their interests.
In short, if we ever want the marijuana laws to change, then we as a community have to better represent the interests of young people, and we must do a better job speaking on their -- and their parents' -- behalf.
We must also do a better job allying with organizations that speak on behalf of youth, particularly urban youth -- who are most at risk of suffering from the lifetime hardships associated with a marijuana conviction. We must do a better job reaching out, engaging and recruiting students to continue to take this issue seriously after they graduate college -- and that includes offering them internships and employment once they've received their degrees. Finally, reformers must do a better job reaching out to the parents of young people and urging them to become active members and financial contributors of the cannabis law reform movement.
They say it's the so-called "parents movement" that derailed the "pot progress" of the 1970s. Well, then, I say that it's high time we recruited our own "NORML Parents" movement to finish the job once and for all.
Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.
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