Student marijuana survey gives cause for hope

From the Editorial Board

Olympian, file photo

When this Editorial Board withheld support for Washington’s marijuana legalization initiative in 2012, the reason could be summed up in a word: children.

Our explanation for not endorsing Initiative 502 concluded thusly: “There may be ways to legalize or decriminalize marijuana for adults without creating a wider snare for juveniles. It would be nice if I-502 could do that. It’s likely to have just the opposite effect.”

If there’s any issue we’d like to be proved wrong about, this is it. And while it’s premature for pot-legalization boosters to declare victory in keeping the drug away from adolescents, the latest state data on underage marijuana use offers encouragement.

Washington health officials last week released results of the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, compiled from responses given by 230,000 students in all 39 counties last fall. The survey of 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders indicates that overall drug use rates have held steady since the last survey in 2014, and that most teens know better than to mess with alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and other substances.

Granted, flat rates of youth marijuana use aren’t reason to rejoice. We should reserve that reaction for the decade-long turnaround in teen cigarette use. (In 2016, only 6 percent of 10th-graders reported smoking tobacco in the previous month.)

Even so, the new survey results count as pretty good news at a time when retail pot shops are popping up faster than nail salons at strip malls around the state, against a backdrop of pervasive advertising and the national movement to normalize weed.

In recent months, retail sales were finally authorized in Fife, Fircrest and unincorporated Pierce County; holdout cities such as University Place and Bonney Lake might soon join them.

With so much legal pot smoke in the air, feel free to breathe a small sigh of relief that reported marijuana use among kids was virtually unchanged from 2014 to 2016. (Six percent of 8th-graders, 17 percent of 10th-graders, and 26 percent of 12th-graders.)

However, a few points of concern jump out of the data:

▪ The percentage of 8th-graders who perceive great risk in using marijuana has dropped from 53 to 48 percent since 2014. (In Pierce County, only 45 percent of 8th-graders now see trying dope as risky.)

▪ More than half of 12th-graders (51 percent) who reported using marijuana said they had driven a vehicle within three hours of using it. (In Pierce, the percentage of foolish drivers was only a little lower, at 48 percent.)

A decreased perception of harm could be a harbinger of increased drug experimentation — and that could translate into real harm to relationships, education, employability, emotional maturity, mental health and the hardwiring of undeveloped brains.

To help nip these trends in the bud, Washington leaders must suck it up and pay for the robust youth drug-abuse awareness effort that was promised under I-502, but has since been betrayed. Of the $730 million in marijuana revenue projected for the state’s next two-year budget, a paltry $20 million is set aside for pot-education and youth-prevention programs.

The Legislature also should clamp down on marijuana ads by adopting elements of Senate Bill 5284. It would prohibit retail licensees from using marketing tactics that target youth, such as objects or characters appealing to children. It also would restrict pot advertising in public places.

Think of it as the legal-marijuana-era equivalent of neutering Joe Camel.

It’s been nearly five years since Washington voters clearly asked for lawful marijuana sales, and governments are acting properly to catch up with the will of the people. But that initiative also forbids anyone under age 21 from buying, using or possessing recreational pot.

Until the youth survey data starts reversing and moving towards zero — not just holding steady — the law remains very much a work in progress.