The 23rd annual Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) was released today, showing an increase in teen marijuana use and reductions in prescription drug misuse and especially cigarette smoking.
Smoking rates have declined with 22 percent of teens reporting smoking cigarettes in the past month -- down 19 percent from 27 percent last year. Past-month usage of marijuana, though, grew from 19 percent in 2008 to 27 percent last year.
The continued decline in teen cigarette smoking is great news -- not just because it's the most deadly drug but also because it reveals that legal regulation and honest education are more effective than prohibition and criminalization. Although the U.S. arrests 750,000 people every year for nothing more than possessing a small amount of marijuana, teens consistently report that marijuana is easier to obtain than alcohol.
It's time we developed a comprehensive strategy for dealing with drug abuse in the 21st century by focusing on what works and what doesn't. It's time to step back and ask ourselves what's the best way to solve the problem we're trying to solve -- how to reduce drug abuse and addiction -- and use the best available evidence to guide us. And, ultimately, it's time to bring marijuana out of the shadows and under the rule of law. The evidence shows that the most effective way to reduce teen marijuana use would be to regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol, with age limits, licensing controls, and other regulatory restrictions.
Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of the effectiveness of our nation's drug policies should be the reduction of drug-related harm. A rational drug policy would prioritize reducing the problems associated with drug misuse itself -- such as overdose, addiction and disease transmission -- and the problems associated with drug prohibition, such as mass incarceration, erosion of civil liberties, and egregious racial disparities in enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. When evaluating policy options, we must consider the fiscal, health and human costs of arresting more than 1.6 million Americans each year on drug charges, including more than 750,000 for marijuana possession alone. Looking at use rates in a vacuum is missing the forest for the trees.
Jag Davies is the publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.