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High Costs

Nov 28, 2018 10:23PM ● By Ricardo Baca
One of the major objections to Amendment 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use in Colorado, was opponents’ perception that if cannabis were legalized for adults, it would send a not-so-subtle message to teenagers that cannabis is not dangerous, it’s acceptable, leading to an increase in use by the underaged.

This is an argument I’ve never really understood. It’s not like teens in states where it’s illegal don’t know that adults use it. And though there can be downsides to cannabis use, in general it’s not as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco. So have those fears been realized?

Preliminary reports after five years of legal adult use suggest they haven’t. The most important so far is the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, released this spring by the Department of Public Health & Environment. It’s as comprehensive an examination of young people’s health to date, sampling 56,000 young people from 190 randomly selected middle and high schools statewide for their answers about everything from tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis use to electronic bullying, school safety, and suicide.

No survey is perfect, but the methodology here is solid. The state has been gathering information like this since 1991, in partnership with the state’s Department of Education, Department of Human Services, Department of Public Safety, the Colorado School of Public Health, and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Marijuana doesn’t attract everybody, and the numbers certainly seem to suggest that. The data indicate that about 19 percent of Colorado teenagers surveyed admitted to using cannabis in the previous 30 days. The more important number to me is that 81 percent of Colorado youth—more than four of five didn’t use cannabis. Multiracial and Pacific Islander teens have slightly higher rates while only nine percent of Asians are users.

The 19 percent number, which is in line with the national average of 20 percent, doesn’t seem abnormally high and has remained relatively stable over the years, whether cannabis was legal or not. About the same percentage of teens were using it before it was legal, and the perception of risk for teens using marijuana regularly is about the same as before legalization, up to 52 percent from 48 percent.

And let’s face it. We haven’t been able to stop adults from using cannabis, and we won’t be able to stop all teenage use, either. No matter what we do to discourage it, people are going to experiment. Yet the survey indicates that teen use has remained relatively unchanged, with 38 percent of youths saying they have never partaken.

Interestingly, the survey also found that despite the low percent of teens who use cannabis, 79 percent do believe that their peers are using it, so there’s certainly some miscommunication going on.

On a more local level, the city of Denver is using some of the 3.5 percent sales tax money it collects above state taxes from cannabis to finance the High Costs campaign, begun in November 2017 to promote honest discussion and offer real facts to discourage teen usage.

first found out about the campaign after I saw a photo of a billboard in Denver. “1 in 6 teens get hooked,” it said. The O’s in the word “hooked” were marijuana leaves. It looked slightly ominous, and my first thought was that some anti-cannabis group might be behind it.

The joke was on me. Denver is dedicating $3.6 million to overall cannabis youth education and prevention programs this year, which includes funding for the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs and Office of Behavioral Health. Besides the billboards and bus ads, the High Costs website (THEHIGHCOSTS.COM) features lots of information in different formats, including a video of a game show that features high schoolers answering questions about cannabis. And there’s Classroom in a Box, a trivia game, as another tool, plus lots of social media interaction.

As it turns out, the billboards aren’t intended to scare. “There have been anti-drug campaigns for a long time, the best known one was the ‘Just Say No’ campaign in the 1980s. One thing we’ve learned is that fear-based campaigns don’t work,” explains Denver Communications Manager Eric Escudero. “It’s not 1985 anymore. These are the sad facts. Teens listen more to their peers than to their parents. We need to educate teens about the facts, so that when they talk to each other, they will understand the repercussions.”

The “1 in 6 will get hooked” tagline bothers me, because it suggests the old scaremongering, mostly the “will get hooked” phrase. The study referenced actually suggests that teens who use regularly have a greater chance of addiction, which is different than saying 1 in 6 “get hooked.” I don’t deny that cannabis can be addicting, but I find it hard to explain the large number of industry leaders I’ve gotten to know over the last few years who have been using cannabis since high school. Depending on your definition of addiction, a lot of people I consider bright and intelligent might be considered addicts simply because they use marijuana regularly.

My qualms about the “1 in 6” billboards notwithstanding, the High Costs campaign offers a lot of good information. Another billboard explains that, because of federal laws, you could be denied a scholarship for an underage marijuana mishap, a particularly cruel way to deny someone access to higher education. “This is not, ’This is your brain on drugs.’ It’s not, ‘Just Say No,’” Escudero explains. “Some of the facts are going to be negative. We are anti youth using marijuana. We’re not anti or pro [marijuana in general]. We’re the regulators in the middle. “

Escudero says the city’s metrics indicate that the program is reaching its intended audience, and cites the Healthy Kids study as evidence that something is working right in Colorado. But as encouraging as the numbers are, he says, more data and research are badly needed. “You raise legitimate questions,” Escudero says. “Hopefully some of those will be answered in the next few years.”