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Can Our Experience With Tobacco and Alcohol Teach Us How to Protect Children From Pot if Marijuana Is Legalized?

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Here's sobering news for parents who care about how their kids fare intellectually. Kids who are dependent on marijuana or use it persistently before they're 18 experience an irreversible, 8-point drop in IQ by midlife. That's enough to drop a person of average intelligence into the bottom third of the IQ range. This is according to a landmark, 30-year study released just two weeks ago. It proves the adage, They don't call it dope for nothing. This is a study we should all pay attention to, especially parents, educators, and business leaders concerned about the lack of American young people with basic work skills. The study is timely because three states right now are facing full legalization of marijuana.

How real is legalization? In 57 days and counting, voters in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington will decide whether to fully legalize marijuana for recreational use. And a bill with 20 co-sponsors has been introduced in Congress that would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act so that states can legalize if they want to.

Regardless of where they stand on legalizing marijuana, responsible state leaders must begin to plan for how to protect kids if -- and only if -- marijuana is legalized. Plan what? For starters, regulations that will guarantee a commercial marijuana industry cannot target kids as customers, just like the tobacco (and alcohol) industry did for decades before it was forced to stop. We have a unique opportunity to craft effective regulations now, before marijuana may be legalized, rather than wait, if marijuana is legalized, 150 years before acting, as we did with cigarettes.

We can learn much from the tobacco and alcohol industries about:

• How they depend on marketing their products to young, underage people, knowing a certain percentage of them will become addicted -- and lifetime customers
• How litigation and recently passed laws are regulating the tobacco industry to prevent this.
• Why even tougher regulations will be needed to force a commercial marijuana industry to keep its hands off kids

If you think this is exaggerated, here's what tobacco executives said about children and cigarettes when the only regulation was a (largely ignored) minimum purchase age:

The Liggett Group: "If you are really and truly not going to sell [cigarettes] to children, you are going to be out of business in 30 years."

R. J. Reynolds: "Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term we must get our share of the youth market."

Lorillard: "The base of our business is the high school student."

Philip Morris: Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens. ... [S]moking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris. ... Because of our high share of the market among the youngest smokers, Philip Morris will suffer more than the other companies from the decline in the number of teenage smokers.

Former model for Winston Cigarettes: Of course, children aren't the only targets of the tobacco industry. Once, when I asked an R.J. Reynolds executive why he and his colleagues didn't smoke, he responded point-blank that "We don't smoke the sh--, we just sell it... We reserve that right for the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid.

Based on what you just read, how do you expect a legal marijuana industry to view your kids?

Who will mind the store? The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act creates a seven-member commission to regulate the production, sale, and marketing of legal pot. The governor will appoint all seven members the first year. But after that, five of the seven commissioners will be elected every year. And who will elect them? Licensed marijuana growers and processors.

How many kids would be smoking today if the tobacco industry could regulate the production, marketing, and sale of cigarettes?

All legal pot in Oregon will be sold at commission-owned stores. The commission will also give grants to researchers to determine if marijuana is harmful and will report those results in pamphlets it will publish and distribute at its stores.

If the tobacco industry had these powers, its CEOs would still be denying that nicotine is addictive.

Regulate marijuana like alcohol? The initiatives in all three states say they will regulate marijuana like alcohol. But how well have Colorado, Oregon, and Washington actually regulated alcohol as compared to marijuana when it comes to kids?

Twice as many younger teens in these states use alcohol as marijuana, as do three times as many older teens and young adults.

We need tougher regulations for legal pot than those that govern alcohol unless we want to see marijuana use double among younger teens and triple among older teens and young adults if these states legalize.

Regulate marijuana like tobacco? All three initiatives will also regulate marijuana like tobacco. That industry knew one way to get kids to start smoking was to sweeten tobacco to mask the harsh smoke of cigarettes. Before regulation, Brown & Williamson considered these ideas for its project called "Youth Cigarettes -- New Concepts":

Apple Flavor--Apples connote goodness and freshness and we see many possibilities for our youth-oriented cigarettes with this flavor. Apple cider is also a possibility.

Sweet Flavor Cigarette--We believe that there are pipe tobaccos that have a sweet aromatic taste. It's a well known fact that teenagers like sweet products. Honey might be considered.

The Colorado and Washington initiatives not only legalize marijuana but marijuana-infused products such as creams, drinks, and foods that contain marijuana. That means marijuana chocolate chip cookies, marijuana fudge, marijuana brownies, marijuana gelato, and other sweets that make it possible to ingest the drug without having to inhale the smoke at all. (In hindsight, the tobacco industry deserves credit for "only" infusing flavors into tobacco instead of infusing tobacco into flavorful foods.)

Without a tough regulation that bans marijuana-infused products, what will protect children from eating these products -- on purpose, or even accidentally?

Research has developed many effective tools to reduce underage smoking and drinking. And they get results. Lifetime smoking by high school seniors, for example, has declined from 74 percent in 1975 to 40 percent today, while past month smoking has been cut in half, from 37 percent to 19 percent. Adolescent alcohol use and binge drinking has declined to the lowest levels in history, according to the Monitoring the Future Survey. But while commendable, is that good enough? Who would be willing to sacrifice his or her child to drugs or alcohol when effective tools are available to protect that child?

We will need to incorporate all the tools research has given us to reduce underage marijuana use if the drug is legalized. And if we tie any increase in adolescent marijuana use to an automatic repeal of legalization, we could not only force a commercial marijuana industry to self-regulate, we might even be able to get adolescent marijuana use down close to zero.

But if we don't act now, while we have time to make contingency plans before commerce takes over, if marijuana is legalized and regulated like tobacco and alcohol, we will repeat history
-- and allow a commercial marijuana industry to literally dumb down the precious minds of generations of children.

Sue Rusche is president and CEO of National Families in Action. The organization has launched a campaign, called But What about the Children, to suggest 12 provisions that should be included in any regulations governing the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana if the drug is legalized.