Money to fight youth marijuana use should stay put

Many Washingtonians voted for Initiative 502 in hopes that legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana would lead to smarter ways to deal with abuse of the drug.

The initiative didn’t merely promise legal pot stores. It also forbade sales to anyone under 21. More important, much of the tax revenue from the sales would flow into a “dedicated marijuana fund” that would finance drug treatment and media campaigns to persuade youth to stay away from pot.

This wasn’t a minor appendage to the initiative; for some, it was I-502’s chief virtue. Without the aggressive public health effort, legalization threatened to send an undiluted message that the adult world considered marijuana no big deal. The prospect of controlling adolescent use was the best reason to vote for I-502, in our view.

State legislators are now poised to demolish that core promise of the law.

The Senate early Friday morning approved a bill that would vaporize the marijuana fund. After breaking the piggy bank, the measure would move the cash into the general operating budget and into public education.

The Senate may compensate by designating more operating money to anti-drug efforts, but once money moves from a dedicated fund to operating funds, it is up for grabs every time a budget is written.

There’s a dishonorable precedent for scattering public health money to the winds.

In 1998, then-Attorney General Chris Gregoire and her counterparts in other states won an enormous sum from the tobacco industry – billions of dollars to be paid in future years. The idea was to offset the damage tobacco did to the health of Washingtonians and to the state’s health care budgets.

After a while, the money proved too tempting. Lawmakers snagged it for the operating budget. History may be repeating itself now with marijuana.

It would be shamelessly irresponsible to abandon I-502’s explicit commitment to help Washington’s youth avoid marijuana. The drug is not particularly harmful to adults who use it occasionally. But it can devastate middle-schoolers or high-schoolers who get trapped in habitual use.

Like other psychoactive drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, marijuana can cause profound changes in a developing brain, sometimes with lifelong consequences.

Adolescents who use pot become addicted at much higher rates than adults. The drug can impair learning. If kids use it frequently, they run a high risk of failing in school and falling far short of their life potential.

There’s some evidence that teenagers can suffer permanent loss of IQ if they keep using heavily into adulthood. Research also suggests that high-potency marijuana can trigger psychotic episodes in some users.

Washington teenagers are too often ignorant of these risks. Surveys show that many of them regard cannabis as a purely benign drug.

With millions of dollars now rolling into the marijuana trust fund, Washington ought to be leading the nation in finding creative ways to discourage adolescent pot use. Instead, lawmakers are looking for creative ways to make the fund disappear. A state that has legalized marijuana cannot be this casual about the signals it is sending its youth.