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Want to Keep Marijuana Away From Teenagers? Regulate it

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Written by Kara Janowsky

When I was a teenager, I bought pot whenever I wanted. As an adult, I worked to keep pot out of the hands of anyone under 21, and to make cannabis use as safe as possible for anyone 21 and over.

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Photo by Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance.

I've been a part of Colorado's legal cannabis industry since regulation was approved by our state's citizens in 2012. Since then, I've seen firsthand that two of the biggest public concerns -- that regulation makes it easier for children to access cannabis, and that regulation leads to a rapid increase in cannabis users -- simply haven't happened.

As a budtender, or cannabis salesperson in a state-legal dispensary, I was responsible for abiding by all the regulatory rules set out by government, including clear legal age restrictions. One of the most important parts of my job was to make sure that people under the age of 21 didn't have access to cannabis. I did this by checking photo ID at multiple points in a single customer transaction. I was the gatekeeper to legal cannabis access.
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The biggest irony is that there is no gatekeeper in the illegal drug market. Drug dealers never check ID. Unlike Colorado's regulation model, prohibition provides children with unrestricted access to drugs (which is why the stats from the US Government's national Monitoring the Future study don't surprise me at all). Even when I was a teenager in a small suburb in Ohio (a state that takes a "tough" approach to cannabis and has yet to legalize medical marijuana), I was able to purchase cannabis whenever I wanted to at my high school.

As someone who went from a teenager who easily bought cannabis under prohibition to a budtender keeping cannabis out of the hands of teenagers, there is no doubt in my mind that regulation creates real barriers to teen access to cannabis.

It also may surprise you that there wasn't a single occasion where I believed that someone underage was using a fake ID, or a customer was shopping for an underage person. And even if this were the case, there is no way regulated cannabis businesses would let it slide. Just like a bar serving alcohol, their license depends on it. Maybe that's why Colorado has seen a decrease in the annual number of high school students reporting that they use cannabis since regulation was implemented.

Beyond accessibility, another common misconception is that regulation produces a wealth of brand new cannabis users who are trying the drug simply because it's legal to do so. I too wondered if that would be the case. But my experience, and the experience of everyone I know in the Colorado legal cannabis industry, just doesn't bear that out.

The majority of customers that came through our doors are previous cannabis users that are shifting from basement drug dealers to legal storefronts, or to personally homegrown cannabis. In my experience, only about two per cent to eight per cent of customers are brand new cannabis users, which is a very small minority. I've therefore come to believe that the concerns about a rapid increase in users following regulation are not only unwarranted, but deeply misguided.

Given that the vast majority of cannabis use doesn't lead to any kind of drug addiction, shouldn't we be more concerned about reducing the potential harms of cannabis use rather than just the number of users?

Time and time again, customers told me how much safer they feel accessing their cannabis through a regulated business, and often commented on their prior negative experiences in the illegal market. When new consumers come into a dispensary, budtenders take the time to educate them on the most effective products for their needs and, most importantly, the safest ways to use those products. Unlike drug dealers, I provided information about methods of consumption other than smoking, like vaping, and about proper dosing.

I'm happy that I am still spending my days focusing on making cannabis use, which is already happening all over the world, as safe as possible.

We need more people working to keep cannabis out of the hands of young people and educating adults on reducing the harms of their use. What I've learned is that it all starts with regulating cannabis markets.

2015-08-17-1439848107-9314824-KaraJanowskyHeadshot.pngKara Janowsky is the Boulder Chapter Chair for Women Grow. She is a recent alumni of the University of Colorado at Boulder where she earned a bachelors in Psychology with a focus on clinical research. She transformed the school's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, significantly increasing student and community engagements. Kara now serves as Secretary of the Mountain Region for the SSDP alumni association. She has been developing her skills in the cannabis industry throughout college and is looking forward to developing an exciting career in the regulated markets.

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