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Originally published March 2, 2011 at 5:00 PM | Page modified March 2, 2011 at 5:09 PM

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Guest columnist

Legalizing marijuana could hurt young people

Legalizing marijuana could imperil more youth

Special to The Times

Join the debate noon Thursday DISCUSS MARIJUANA legalization with proponents and opponents of legalization, including Times opinion writers, in a live chat at noon Thursday. Go to www.seattletimes.com

AS we consider the legalization of marijuana, we must bear in mind the impact on our youth. Politics aside, the legalization debate is sending a confusing message that's contributing to a rise in marijuana use among teens.

In the Seattle Times' Feb. 20 editorial calling for the legalizing of marijuana and Editorial Page Editor Ryan Blethen's Feb. 27 column, the potential impact on youth was blithely dismissed.

As the head of an agency that provides treatment to youth who abuse drugs and alcohol, I venture to say no one talked with experts in my field.

The number of middle-, junior- and high-school students experimenting with marijuana is the highest since the 1980s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Puget Sound agencies that treat substance abuse in youth, like Youth Eastside Services (YES), report marijuana is the No. 1 drug of choice for teens battling addiction. And most experts would say the legalization debate is one of the factors accounting for this increase.

At YES, we work with youth in schools, teen centers and in our substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. Across the board, our counselors report a change in attitude toward marijuana. Most teens see it as less dangerous and we hear them talk about the drug being natural, medicinal and "almost legal."

Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is an addictive substance. Moreover, the potency of marijuana today has doubled and even tripled when compared to that of the 1960s, '70s and '80s — making for powerful highs and powerful addictions.

It typically costs YES more than $1,000 to provide substance-abuse treatment to a single youth, to say nothing of the costs of recovery support. While insurance can cover some of this expense, for those who lack insurance or income to cover the costs, it's often subsidized by taxpayers.

Since the Times is supporting selling pot in liquor stores, let's look at alcohol and the comparison it provides. Alcohol is the No. 1 drug used by teens. Why? Because it is legal, they see their parents using it, it's more accepted and because they have easy access to it. Youth can get it at home, they can ask others to purchase it for them, they can even purchase it themselves (with enough perseverance or a fake ID). And unfortunately, some parents even make it available to their teens.

Local and national studies show that approximately 25 percent of teens have had a drink in the last 30 days. And 80 percent of those are binge drinkers. Not all teens who drink will become alcoholics, but those who do have a significantly higher chance of developing alcoholism as an adult — 40 percent higher for those who start drinking between ages 14 and 17.

If we legalize marijuana, kids will see their parents using it, it will be more accepted and they will have easier access. It's not a stretch to say we will see an increased use and more problems with addiction with kids and their parents.

We also can't dismiss a recent Harvard study showing that marijuana has an especially negative impact on the developing brain. Regular marijuana use results in poorer school performance and attendance as well as loss of interest in other activities. In addition, pot use is associated with respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance and impaired cognitive and immune system functions. Furthermore, addiction can be associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

To look at only the taxpayer benefits of legalizing pot is short-sighted and potentially dangerous. Marijuana is a powerful drug that needs full consideration of all its impacts and costs. And without a doubt the impact and costs associated with our youth should be at the top of that list — not relegated to a small consideration.

Patti Skelton- McGougan

is executive director

of Youth Eastside Services.

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