When I was in high school, in Yonkers New York, there were the kids who did naughty things and the kids who didn’t. The naughty things broke down into two categories – drinking alcohol and having sex. It was very simple. The kids who did were “bad” and the kids who didn’t were “good.” The good kids were in the majority. It was clearly illegal to drink, and most of us weren’t willing to risk a jump into criminal behavior. Smoking marijuana was way off the grid of normal behavior and I doubt anyone in our class did it. Who wanted to risk becoming a serious criminal who might get arrested and go to jail?
Nowadays things aren’t so simple. Marijuana teeters on the edge of generalized legality. Many teenagers know their parents did it and some of their parents still do. No one worries about being arrested for posessing small amounts. In many places in the USA, notably Santa Monica Beach in LA, hawkers are outside of marijuana sales parlors, directing buyers to come in to buy “medical marijuana.”
“There’s a doctor inside, and he’ll give you a license to use marijuana legally.” This from a young woman in a teeny mini-skirt standing outside with a sign.
Alcohol was, of course, sold openly when I was a teenager and was available from parental stashes. Ah, the suburban “wet bars,” a feature in any modern home. The bad kids drank in high school and really went wild in college. And now that marijuana is universally available, lots of kids are using that. And they’re starting very young.
I talked to a a few young people about this in Seattle.
“I smoked dope the first time when I was eight,” says Priscilla R. of Seattle. “My sister gave it to me, and let me get high with her and her friends. It was fun and I still do it.”
Priscilla is 23. She smokes dope every day and has had a series of low-end jobs, none lasting more than a year. She isn’t interested in going to college, even though both of her parents are college graduates and would support her through school.
“Why should I do all that work?” she asks. “There aren’t any jobs anyway. I don’t see what everyone is so freaked out about.”
Bart G., 17, lives in the suburb of a big city. Both of his parents work. A lot of his friends have dropped out of school because they don’t see a point to continuing. James, however, has remained on track and is due to graduate next year.
“I probably won’t go to college,” he says. “It’s a lot of work, it’s expensive, and it’s a waste of time. I might look for an apprenticeship or practice more with my band and see if we can get some gigs. We’re making a CD and we’ll sell it outside concerts. I really like the music scene.”
I asked Bart how his parents felt about his decision and he said they thought he was applying to colleges. “I haven’t told them yet, how I really feel.”
Does anyone you know go to college?, I asked Bart.
“Oh yeah, some of the kids from my class are probably going. Not kids I hang with, though.”
I asked Bart what he thought about drugs.
“Drugs? You mean like heroin or crystal meth? No, I don’t do that – that stuff really fucks you up. Excuse my language.”
No, I mean dope, marijuana, or whatever you call it these days.”
“Marijuana isn’t really a drug,” Bart says. “It’s just something we all do to keep sane. It’s not against the law and everybody I know does it. Anyone who doesn’t smoke dope is outside the, you know, normal range.”
I asked Bart what percent of his class he thought used marijuana. He laughed. “Oh, maybe about ninety-five percent,” he said. “Pretty much everybody.”
I talked to one girl, who gets excellent grades and is college-bound. Celine says, “Almost everybody smokes dope and has sex. I’m unpopular, I just have a few friends. I don’t get invited to many parties.”
When I asked Celine what she thought made her different, she said, “It doesn’t really tempt me. I want to go to college. I think I want to be a neurosurgeon and I can’t do that if I get distracted.”
It’s interesting to wonder what makes that five percent of straight kids stay on target, but the more important issue is what makes ninety-five percent of them wander off into the ennui produced by chronic marijuana use. Ten years ago, when marijuana legality was cloudier, the statistics were nowhere near this dramatic.
Legalizing marijuana removes barriers from drug use. Marijuana is an insidious drug, not because it causes illness, death, or even criminal behavior, but because it takes the drive and ideals out of people, especially young ones. People don’t smoke a lot of pot and say, “I want to be the president of the United States.” They don’t even say, “It’s important to go to school.” This is the danger of marijuana, and the danger in giving the wrong message to young people – the message that marijuana is harmless.
The argument that legalizing marijuana will cut criminal behavior and eliminate profits for drug dealers is not valid. First of all, legalizing it creates new jobs, like salespeople and more and more dealers. And second of all, legalizing marijuana would simply mean that other drugs will be trafficked more.