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Originally published Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

A sensible approach to marijuana legalization that protects young people

The marijuana-legalization debate can too quickly become polarized. Guest columnist Roger Roffman argues that both sides need to tone down the rhetoric at look at ways youth can be protected if adult marijuana use becomes legal in Washington state.

Special to The Times

MARIJUANA is not an entirely harmless substance, as Patti Skelton-McGougan's guest editorial pointed out ["Legalizing marijuana could hurt young people," Opinion, March 3].

Proposals to regulate and legalize its use for adults must include careful planning for how children and adolescents, who are more vulnerable to the risks posed by marijuana use, can best be protected.

But a full discussion requires not only that the proponents of change acknowledge the risks of trying a new approach, but also that those opposing change acknowledge the harms of current policies and the potential of alternative strategies. They may find it's possible to implement a policy that accomplishes both protecting youth and ending the criminalization of responsible adult marijuana use.

A legalization policy should draw from the successes and failures of alcohol and tobacco laws. In the success category, teenage alcohol- and tobacco-usage rates have declined considerably since the late 1970s. Our experience shows that prevention can work and that society can establish community norms, making clear we neither approve nor tolerate underage use. In the failure category, youth are commonly enticed to use alcohol and tobacco via relentless advertising and cheap prices.

We can avoid this for marijuana. A new policy should regulate the type of advertisements that are allowed, and the product should be priced so that its cost discourages use but still undercuts the black-market dealers. By implementing the best aspects of alcohol and tobacco policy and eliminating the mistakes, we can develop a workable policy for marijuana.

We can also learn from the experiences of marijuana policy in The Netherlands, where regulated "coffee shops" are allowed to sell the drug to adults. This de facto legalization did not, in itself, affect rates of marijuana use among youth.

However, rates of use among young people did increase when the number of coffee shops was allowed to increase and the age of legal access was set at 16. Encouragingly, these rates declined when the number of coffee shops was reduced and the age of legal access was raised to 18. So, it would make sense for a marijuana policy in Washington state to set the age limit at 21 and minimize the number of outlets where marijuana can be purchased.

A marijuana-legalization policy also should allow for the price of marijuana to be changed quickly to target the point that strikes the best balance between discouraging use and undercutting the black market. The newfound tax revenue from marijuana legalization should be earmarked for prevention, education and treatment programs, and be given to the most effective programs available.

Further, the new marijuana policy should be studied and evaluated from Day One and adjusted if it becomes clear that it is producing negative outcomes for youth.

Proponents of reforming the law should not imply either that marijuana is totally harmless or that legalization will have no impacts on youth. Public health and safety issues, and the need to protect children from behaviors that have heightened risks for them, are both legitimate issues which must be addressed.

Similarly, opponents of reform must acknowledge the consequences of current laws. Criminalizing marijuana use for adults has had questionable effectiveness in impacting use and abuse rates, and it has demonstrably significant costs. For simply possessing marijuana, people are jailed, get the stigma of a criminal record and lose employment opportunities. For society there are wasted criminal-justice resources, overcrowded jails and lost potential tax revenue.

If protecting youth is to be a central goal in shaping marijuana policy, both sides of the discussion should avoid polarizing rhetoric and recognize their common interest in ensuring that we treat marijuana use in the most safe and effective way possible.

Roger Roffman is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington and a private practitioner specializing in treating marijuana dependence.

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