Raise your hand if you've consumed an alcoholic beverage or smoked marijuana in the last month. Raise your hand if you abstained from using alcohol until you were of legal age. Now, raise your hand if you refrained from smoking pot in the last month because it's illegal. Anyone?
Do strict alcohol and marijuana laws actually prevent their use? That's the question a team of researchers set out to answer in a recent paper published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Their cross-national comparison of drinking and cannabis use among 10th-graders indicates that although strict alcohol laws may prevent kids from drinking, strict marijuana laws don't do much at all to curb use.
Bruce Simons-Morton, William Pickett, Will Boyce, Tom F.M. ter Bogt and Wilma Vollebergh chose the United States, Canada and the Netherlands — countries with significantly different drug and alcohol policies — for their case studies.
The founded-by-Puritans United States is the strictest of the three, with a national drinking age of 21 (although many university presidents and chancellors would prefer it at 18). The country treats alcoholic beverage purchase, possession and, in some states, consumption as criminal offenses. It also has the strictest marijuana laws: Purchase and possession (in some states) of marijuana are criminal misdemeanors, and 23 of the 50 states require mandatory sentencing for possession of relatively small amounts.
Canada has a more moderate stance on alcohol and drug use. The legal drinking age is 19 in most of Canada, but only 18 in three of its provinces. Marijuana possession and use in Canada is treated as a statutory offense (in most cases), resulting in a fine but not a criminal record or incarceration. However, it is often overlooked by law enforcement. In fact, Vancouver, British Columbia, has become arguably the world's most drug-tolerant city — one in which, as a 2008 Miller-McCune story documents, drug use is approached as a social problem and not a criminal offense. Junkies have government-provided paraphernalia, a clean place to shoot up, and, in some cases, drugs; marijuana users can openly smoke "B.C. bud" on the streets.
The Netherlands, home of Amsterdam's legendary "coffee shops", takes the cake for the most liberal drug and alcohol policies of the three nations. The Dutch have no minimum drinking age, but 16 is the minimum age to purchase alcohol. Regulated sales of small amounts of cannabis in "coffee shops" are legal for anyone over the age of 18. Although it is technically illegal to grow and sell the plant, police don't make drug enforcement a priority.
Canada and the Netherlands take the harm-reduction approach in their policies, meaning that they hope to reduce higher risk use, like drinking and driving, but keep the costs to society of enforcement (incarceration, etc.) low. In Canada, 2,236 juveniles were arrested for drug-related offenses in 2006; in the Netherlands, juvenile arrests for possession of alcohol or marijuana are practically unheard of.
In the United States, a country that makes enforcement a priority, there were 168,888 arrests of juveniles for drug use in 2006, most of which were for cannabis possession, and 250,000 alcohol-related arrests of individuals, mostly for underage drinking, in the same year.
The researchers used the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children survey, which assesses a number of variables, including substance use among 10th-graders, to inform their study. It asks students a number of questions to measure the prevalence of alcohol and cannabis use, the age of first use, and the frequency of drunkenness. (The study's authors acknowledge that there is some element of subjectivity in self-reported drunkenness, but assert that it has been used successfully in several other papers).
They found that, for most measures, drinking was more prevalent in Canada and the Netherlands for boys and girls than in the United States. Approximately 19 percent of American boys reported weekly drinking, compared to 22 percent of Canadian guys and a whopping 52 percent of Dutch males. The pattern is similar for girls: 13 percent in the U.S., 17 percent in Canada and 33.4 percent in the Netherlands said they drank weekly. These results confirm those of previous studies, which have shown that stricter alcohol laws do reduce use (and underage drunken driving).
However, the rates of kids using marijuana were not significantly different among the three countries, in spite of significant variation in policy and enforcement. Cannabis use among boys in the United States was actually the highest (excuse the pun) of any group in the study.
Rates of use in the past 12 months and use in the past 30 days were pretty similar for boys and girls across national boundaries: about 20 percent of boys overall reported use in the last month, and almost 17 percent of American and Canadian girls reported the same. Dutch girls were the one exception, reporting the lowest frequency of use (only 11 percent had used the herb in the past month).
The researchers conclude, "The data provide no evidence that strict cannabis laws in the United States provide protective effects compared to the similarly restrictive but less vigorously enforced laws in Canada, and the regulated access approach in the Netherlands. ... The question remains for policymakers in each country to determine the extent to which policies regarding adolescent substance use maximize prevention benefits while minimizing social consequences."
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