WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the U.S. Justice Department promised not to prosecute illegal marijuana sales planned to begin in Washington state and Colorado next year, its top lawyers demanded that the states reciprocate with a pledge to keep the drug away from minors.
And officials in those pioneering pot states — where recreational use of marijuana was approved by voters in November — say they’re ready to comply.
But to legalization opponents, such promises are a pipe dream, destined to fail. They say it’s more likely the U.S. will unleash a new industry that will try hard to attract young users and turn them into “addicts.”
“Kids are going to be bombarded with this — they’re already getting the message that it’s acceptable,” said Kevin Sabet, a legalization opponent and director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute, who served as an adviser on drug issues to President Barack Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
With polls showing support for legalizing marijuana on the rise, questions about how it would affect children remain.
The debate has intensified as momentum for legalization builds and as research shows increased marijuana use among youngsters. More teens are now smoking pot than tobacco, believing that it is safer.
Legalization backers say they’re just as eager to protect kids as opponents. And they say the public has no reason to worry if the drug is sold openly in stores instead of on the streets.
“Forcing marijuana sales into the underground market is the worst possible policy when it comes to protecting our young people,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group. “It is odd that those who wish to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids are fighting to keep it as uncontrolled as possible.”
Sabet is hoping that history will repeat itself and that the tide will turn against legalization, as it did in the late 1970s when baby boomers began questioning how the drug would affect kids.
“It’s really important to talk about the outcome for children,” he said. “This is not just about the 45-year-old otherwise responsible adult smoking weed once a week in their basement.”
Teens already are more likely to smoke pot than tobacco, according to a study released in December by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan.
In 2012, 23 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana in the past month, while 17 percent of the seniors said they had smoked tobacco. As recently as 2008, high school seniors were more likely to smoke cigarettes than marijuana.
The study reported similar findings in past-month use for students in younger grades. Seventeen percent of the 10th-graders had used marijuana, compared with 11 percent who had smoked cigarettes. Among eighth-graders, 6.5 percent had smoked pot, compared with 5 percent who had smoked tobacco.
“We are increasingly concerned that regular or daily use of marijuana is robbing many young people of their potential to achieve and excel in school or other aspects of life,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said when the study was released.
As officials in Washington state and Colorado prepare to open the nation’s first retail pot shops, many acknowledge the tricky task awaiting them. But they appear determined both to allow adults to smoke pot for fun while trying to convince kids that it’s not a good idea.
“We are committed to countering the perception among young people that marijuana is less dangerous to them because it has been made legal for adult use,” Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel for the Colorado governor, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.
Among other things, Colorado will ban pot advertising aimed at anyone under 21 and form a “marijuana educational oversight committee” to let minors know the drug could hinder their neurological development, Finlaw said.
In a letter to the Senate panel, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson promised that all of the marijuana will be sold in child-resistant packaging and that none of the state’s 334 retail pot stores will be allowed within 1,000 feet of a school, park, playground or video arcade when they open June 1.
While the industry already has used billboard advertising, Washington state’s top consultant said the Justice Department should do more to discourage marketing.
“A retailer needs a modest sign on the outside of the building and a website listing what it has to sell,” said consultant Mark Kleiman, who’s also a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is no need to tolerate anything more than that.”
In written testimony to the committee, Kleiman said that cracking down on marketing “would do more to prevent increased drug abuse and increased use by minors than any single other step the federal government could take.”
Sabet predicted that attracting more young users will be necessary for the economic survival of the industry.
“This is about making sure that kids are hooked early, because that’s the only way that addictive industries make money,” he said. “They don’t make money off casual users, and in order to get addicts, you have to start people young.”
Sabet took special aim at Colorado, saying the state already has “de facto legalization for kids” with its medical marijuana system. He criticized the state’s dispensaries for engaging in mass advertising and for selling such items as “medical marijuana lollipops” and “pot tarts.” And he noted that studies already have found increased emergency room admissions for teens in Colorado who reported using someone else’s medical marijuana.
“When availability goes up, the kids’ access to it is going to go up, too,” Sabet said. “And I think we’re foolish to think there’s not going to be a black market.”
Sabet has emerged as one of the nation’s top legalization opponents after teaming up earlier this year with Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, to create a group called Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). The group wants the Justice Department to block the states of Washington and Colorado from proceeding, with Kennedy warning that a failure to do so will lead to more drugged-driving accidents and school dropouts.
“These people have too much free time and they need to get a job,” said Steve Horowitz, who runs a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver but is hoping to make the switch to a full recreational operation.
His line of marijuana “edibles” includes “Mountain High suckers” that sell for $6 each. But Horowitz said all of his goods are aimed at adults. And he said no dispensary owner would risk his investment by selling to minors.
“If there’s no black market, then the only place you can buy it is in a store that spends $600,000 to be open,” he said. “You think anybody’s going to break the law and sell to somebody under 21?”