By Alexander E. Sharp
In a world of bleak and distressing headlines, it was a pleasant New Year surprise to see the words “Teen Rebellion, Guess Who’s Shunning Cigarettes” introducing a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune. Teen cigarette smoking has fallen by 50% in just the last five years, and has been declining for the past decade.
These figures, released on December 16th by the nationwide Monitoring the Future study out of the University of Michigan, give us more than simply good news about reduced teen smoking. They should also inform our growing national debate about whether we should continue to prohibit marijuana or legalize it.
Right now, with for teens, what’s legal (cigarette smoking) is way down. What’s prohibited (marijuana use) is remaining steady. About 35% of 12th graders used marijuana at least once in 2015, compared to 36% in 2012; and 21% in the past month in 2015 compared to about 23% in 2012.
The study speculates on why teen smoking has been reduced: “concerted efforts to reduce youth smoking appear to be paying off… (these include) increased taxes on tobacco products, restrictions on advertising and promotion, limiting where smoking is permitted, broad-based anti-smoking ad campaigns, educational programs in schools, and quit smoking programs and products becoming more available, (and) increased in the prices of cigarettes charged by manufacturers.”
One can understand how such regulatory measures might discourage teen cigarette smoking. But what can we say about the impact of prohibition, which is far more drastic, on marijuana use, especially compared with regulation?
It is essential to understand what “prohibition”, “legalization” and “regulation” actually do. “Prohibition” is a total ban on a particular activity with the possibility of arrest, a criminal recor d, and perhaps jail, or even prison.
“Legalization” conjures up the title of the old Cole Porter song “Anything Goes.” But that’s not correct. The real alternative to “prohibition” is not mindless and sanction-free approval. It is “regulation”, which carries with it many strictures that now apply to teen smokers as noted in the Monitoring the Future study. These include restrictions on age, hours of sale, and location of use.
Yes, prohibition by definition implies these constraints. But when any law is widely ignored, its capacity to change public behavior becomes relatively meaningless. At this point, nearly 60% of the American public support legalization; over 80% of high school seniors report that marijuana is “easily accessible.”
Regulations that speak to what we can reasonably try to enforce are more likely to be effective than are “pretend” laws, as with marijuana, that are blatantly disregarded.
Further, some of the things we can do with regulation are impossible in illicit markets. Prohibition offers no control over price, potency, and quality of what is sold. It’s harder to conduct education programs under a national policy that blinks at reality about the extent of use. For all these reasons, the adolescents we are trying to protect may be better off under regulation.
The costs of drug use prohibition are well-known. Our history with alcohol is part of national lore. Prohibition of marijuana today has devastating negative consequences: over 750,000 arrests annually; denial of public jobs and services for the poor, including food stamps, housing, and educational grants; and barriers to private employment and housing as well. The currently illicit market leads to increased crime, violence, and the use of adulterated substances.
Regulation vastly outstrips prohibition as sound public policy even if use were to increase. Old-guard warriors such as William Bennett, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, fear that moving to a system of “tax and regulate” would significantly increase marijuana use. Future trends are hard to predict. But what is noteworthy, given the news about teen cigarette smoking, is that the evidence may not be on their side.