by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
A year after Washington State voters passed I-502 – making The Evergreen State one of the first two states in the nation to legalize the use of recreational marijuana – the debate surrounding the substance came back to life wearing a different coat. Now, in a proxy continuation of the former debate surrounding marijuana’s usage, anti-drug and pro-marijuana advocates are, instead, arguing about the placement of forthcoming, state-run pot shops, as well as potential alterations to the state’s medical marijuana laws. With anti-drug groups saying that marijuana usage among teenagers has increased in the last year, groups like Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) say that the debate is still an important one.
Although guidelines regarding the legal sale of marijuana were finalized on December 1, one issue that remains contentious is a rule stating that a 1,000-foot buffer must be between any marijuana retailer and “an elementary or secondary school, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, public transit center, library or arcade, where admission is not restricted to those age 21 and older.”
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has requested that the buffer, which is twice the amount required for liquor stores, be altered in its interpretation to mean along the “common path of travel” rather than “as the crow flies.”
Originally, Holmes’ interpretation of the law was what the Liquor Control Board initially proposed, until federal prosecutors stepped in and called for tighter restrictions. Holmes has said that the stricter interpretation would leave many areas where demand would be high, including the majority of Capitol Hill and the U-District, without easy access to marijuana retailers, and risks the future of the law’s success in driving out the black market.
However, Holmes’ new proposal centers on a middle ground between the two interpretations by keeping the “as the crow flies” measurement for schools and playgrounds, while using the looser “common path of travel” measurement for all other youth-oriented services enumerated in the LCB’s guidelines.
But anti-drug activists, unhappy with the loosening of restrictions on marijuana, have found reason to rejoice in the LCB’s decision to keep the “as the crow flies” measurement. Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor at Susquehanna University, recently published an op-ed for SADD that chastised the decriminalization movement for an apparent uptick in marijuana usage among teens noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“The federal statistics tell us that more than 12 percent of eighth graders and 36 percent of high school seniors, at both public and private schools, reported smoking marijuana in the past year,” Wallace wrote. “Perhaps most alarming is that approximately 60 percent of seniors said they did not believe regular use of the drug is harmful.”
According to Wallace, the greatest concerns of anti-drug groups regarding the decriminalization and increased proliferation of marijuana stem from the use of the drug by teen drivers, who already account for the largest percentage of road accidents in the country, as recent research by SADD found that 23 percent of teens had admitted to driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“A whopping one in four teens (25 percent) who have driven under the influence of marijuana say they’re not distracted ‘at all’ when mixing substance use with driving,” Wallace wrote. “With 13 million driving-aged teenagers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we have reason to be afraid.”
Wallace also points to the potentially detrimental effect that marijuana has on the developing brains of teens, a claim that remains disputed by conflicting research. A 2012 study of frequent alcohol and marijuana use by the University of California, San Diego found that while alcohol presented a risk to the brain tissue of teens, marijuana had no obvious effect.
“One reason is that marijuana can really vary,” neuroscientist and study co-author Susan Tapert told The Huffington Post last December. “Different strains contain different levels of THC and other marijuana components. For example, some studies have suggested one component, cannabidiol, may actually have neuroprotective effects.”
But, another of Wallace’s warnings covers an area untested in that study: cognitive ability. Wallace points to another study by Northwestern University for NIDA that found marijuana use as an impairment to the working memory of frequent users, damaging teenager’s ability in “solving puzzles, remembering numbers or quickly processing information needed to perform everyday tasks.”
Ultimately, Wallace says that communities must work together to curb the usage of marijuana among teens by identifying trends among those who use the substance, and instituting greater prevention methods by consensus between teens, parents, educators and public safety officials.
“We must remain focused on the future, recommitting to initiatives aimed at keeping young people safe, alive and in pursuit of the positive youth outcomes they seek, lest our decades of work go up in smoke.”