Members of a commission led by California's lieutenant governor said Tuesday that legalizing the recreational use of marijuana could generate enough tax revenue to fund drug education and counseling centers at every high school in the state, a potential upside that should be seriously considered as activists work to put a pot-legalization initiative before voters next year.
Meeting at a youth center in a part of East Oakland scarred by violence, poverty and addiction, the panel held a public discussion on the issue that could make or break a legalization campaign in the nation's top pot-producing state: concerns about keeping the drug out of the hands of minors and young adults once it can be purchased as easily as a six-pack of beer. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the commission's chairman, acknowledged that crafting a system of retail sales and regulations that satisfies fearful parents will be a tough sell.
“I've got three kids, and I have a wife at home who is not so convinced we should be heading in this direction,” said Newsom, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 who supports legalization in theory but has not yet endorsed a particular approach.
Psychiatrist Timmen Cermak, past president of the California Society for Addiction Medicine, said worries that more children would start using weed are probably overblown given how accessible the drug is already. Public health surveys show that three-quarters of California 11th-graders say then can easily obtain marijuana, a rate that has held steady for four decades, Cermak said.
Meanwhile, the proportion of youth who are heavy pot users — those who use it 20 or more days a month — has not risen or declined in the 18 years since California became the first state to legalize marijuana, he said. But those young people are at high risk of failing school and cognitive impairments, Cermak said. If taxes on marijuana sales were devoted to creating school-based Student Assistance Centers to serve them and to persuade all adolescents to refrain, legalization might actually be an improvement, he said.
“California has the opportunity to enact policies that offer new opportunities for protecting youth,” he said.
Peter Banys, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco who also specializes in treating addiction, agreed. Banys said that zero-tolerance and drug-free school policies that make possession of small amounts of marijuana grounds for suspending or expelling students from school have done more harm than good by cutting youth off from sources of support.
“Marijuana is not nothing. It's not gum drops. But the risks are fairly low” for addiction, he said. “There are a lot problems with the enforcement approach, and the biggest is it hasn't worked.”
Ron Allen, a bishop in Sacramento who leads an anti-drug organization called the International Faith Based Coalition, said he remains skeptical. Allen predicted that clergy from every mainline religion would be lining up to oppose the effort to have California join the four other states that have legalized recreational marijuana use for adults.
“That's illusory thinking, that by legalizing marijuana we are going to be able to control it,” Allen said. “If the adults are not saying no, how do we expect our youth to say no?”