Anti-drug advocates often assert that California's medical marijuana law and the prevalence of the dispensaries that distribute the drug are making it easier for children to get pot.
But showing a direct link between medical marijuana laws and teen drug use is difficult, as illustrated by two separate government reports used by parties on both sides of the contentious issue to support their positions.
Figures compiled by the state attorney general's office show that marijuana use by minors has decreased since 1996, when California voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.
On the other hand, a federal agency says the rate of teen marijuana use in California ---- and other states that have passed marijuana laws ---- is higher than in states where there are no medical marijuana laws.
The state's Compassionate Use Act does not have age restrictions; therefore, doctors can recommend it to teen patients, according to the state attorney general's office.
Substance-abuse prevention advocates say some kids are using the law to get the drug simply to get high. There is anecdotal, but no hard evidence to support that assertion.
John Byrom, who works with the Vista-based North Coastal Prevention Coalition, said it's common sense that if the drug is more widely available through dispensaries, more kids are going to get it.
"They (dispensaries) are going to sell it to anybody, because it's not about sick people, it's about making money," Byrom said.
Medical marijuana advocates say the risk to teens is being overblown by critics.
Stephen Gutwillig, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports the use of medical marijuana, said opponents are trying to sabotage state law by blocking sensible, local regulatory measures that would make it harder for children to get the drug.
Moreover, doctors should be allowed to recommend marijuana to children as medicine if the physician believes the drug would be beneficial to the patient, Gutwillig said.
"I would say that doctors are in the best position to say what is in the best interest of their patients," he said.
Some counties and cities have adopted ordinances to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, Gutwillig said. Some of those regulations prohibit the sale of marijuana to minors, while others require a parent's permission.
But San Diego County leaders, including most county supervisors and the district attorney, are fighting to restrict or ban dispensaries rather than set guidelines on their operation, he said.
In that regulatory vacuum, some people may be abusing the law, Gutwillig said.
"That's what the absence of regulation looks like," he said.
In 2006, the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit to overturn the medical marijuana law, saying it conflicts with federal drug laws. The supervisors unsuccessfully challenged the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear an appeal in May.
In August, the supervisors implemented a temporary ban on dispensaries.
The following month, authorities shut down 14 dispensaries and arrested more than 30 people from Vista to San Marcos to San Diego. County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the shops served as little more than fronts for illegal drug sales.
Cause and effect?
Peter Ramos, 33, said an 18-year-old relative and the relative's juvenile friends showed him how easy it was to get a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana. Ramos said a doctor in Orange County wrote him a note saying he had pain in his wrist.
The pain was nonexistent, Ramos said. The doctor made it up so Ramos could get marijuana at a dispensary, he said.
"All you have to do is go, pay $150 and that's it," Ramos said.
Under state law, doctors can recommend marijuana use for patients who have any number of illnesses and conditions, including chronic pain. Patients then take the doctor's note, similar to a prescription, to a marijuana dispensary, where they can get the drug.
However, the system is riddled with problems due to unclear and sometimes contradictory regulations.
Ramos said he was stopped by police several times, but was able to show them he was a medical marijuana patient. He was later arrested for carrying more than the amount allowed by state law, he said.
After several years of living with his addiction to pot, Ramos said he's been clean for 18 months, but his cousin continues to struggle with his habit.
"It's horrible," Ramos said. "At first you don't care, but it really messed up my life and it messed my cousin's life."
He now works at A Better Tomorrow Treatment Center, a drug treatment clinic in Murrieta.
Exactly how many teens are using marijuana dispensaries to get pot is unclear. The district attorney's office said that about 12.5 percent of patients enrolled in dispensaries busted during a 2005 sweep were under the age of 21, the drinking age for alcohol.
Paul Levikow, a spokesman for Dumanis, said the patient lists reviewed in that sweep ---- there were more than 1,000 names ---- did not show anyone under the age of 18, but he said some kids could have lied about their age.
A state survey conducted every two years shows that the number of kids who say they have used marijuana has decreased since the state adopted the medical marijuana law.
The Biennial California Student Survey, sponsored by the state attorney general's office, asks several questions of seventh-, ninth- and 11th-grade students about their drug, alcohol and tobacco use. The data is used by state agencies as a yardstick of teen substance abuse in California.
Medical marijuana advocates point out that California's survey ---- and similar surveys in other states where medical marijuana laws have been adopted ---- show that the number of teens using marijuana has declined.
For example, in the state's 1996 survey, 24 percent of ninth-graders said they had smoked marijuana in the previous 30 days, compared to 13 percent in 2006. Results among students in the seventh and 11th grades saw similar, though less dramatic drops, according to state figures.
The most recent survey in 2008 reported a small increase in teen marijuana use. Fifteen percent of ninth-grade respondents said they had tried marijuana in the last 30 days.
Nevertheless, Byrom points to other reports that say the rate of teen marijuana use in California ---- and other states that have passed marijuana laws ---- is still higher than in states where there are no medical marijuana laws.
In states without medical marijuana laws, 6.7 percent of teens questioned said they had tried marijuana, compared to 8.4 percent of teens in states where there were medical marijuana laws, according to data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Byrom said that laws send the wrong message to teens: That it's OK to use it because it is a medicine.
"It makes our job a lot harder because they think marijuana is not so bad," Byrom said.
By EDWARD SIFUENTES
October 24, 2009
North County Times
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Are marijuana laws increasing teen drug use?