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The Message That Continuing Marijuana Prohibition Sends to Young People

A frequent attack used against marijuana legalization that it sends a bad message to young people. For example on NPR the new Drug Czar Michael Botticelli again used this trope to criticize the new legalization laws in Colorado and Washington saying, “I think that the movement toward legalization, I think, sends the wrong message, particularly to the youth of our country.”

What almost never gets acknowledged in this debate is that the kind of message the government’s continued commitment to marijuana prohibition is really sending to the public.

To begin with there is the fact that the federal government keeps marijuana a schedule I drug, classifying it as having no accepted medical value despite significant evidence that it provides relief to patients with a range of conditions. By doing this the federal government is telling our young people that it is okay to completely disregard science if you don’t like the results. It also lets young people know their government doesn’t thinks relieving the suffering of the sick should be a priority.

The government also continues to spend billions of dollars and has arrested millions of Americans in our decades-long marijuana prohibition war, yet it has completely failed to stop marijuana from being widely used. From this young people learn the important lesson that you should never admit you made a mistake, no matter how expensive or destructive that mistake has been.

Finally, there is the fact that anti-marijuana laws were written by racists to advance racist objectives and marijuana law continues to be enforced in an racially unfair manner. Despite similar rates of use among whites and blacks, African-Americans are still roughly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana. Hundreds of thousand of minorities are arrested for using a mostly benign plant.

Marijuana prohibition is telling young people that their government thinks it is acceptable to be dismissive of science, wasteful, stubbornly ignorant, cruel to the sick, and structurally racist. That also indirectly ends up sending the message that the government shouldn’t be trusted or respected.

We are sending this terrible message to our youth, because prohibitionists think if we legalize marijuana the general public is too stupid to talk to their children about legal marijuana in the exact same way they do about legal alcohol and cigarettes. Apparently, the only way we can think to tell young people that doing something is a bad idea is by wasting billions on racial biased arrests.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at