Steve Chapman

The experience here falls short of bloodcurdling. "In the states that have passed medical-marijuana laws, youth marijuana use has decreased," Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told me. In California, "the number of 7th, 9th and 11th graders reporting marijuana use in the last six months and in their lifetimes all declined" after 1996, when the state passed its medical marijuana law.

The alleged harms of cannabis on the teen mind and body are generally exaggerated. Critics have trumpeted a study last year that said teenagers with a heavy habit turn out to have lower IQs as adults than their peers who avoided the stuff.

But a new assessment by Norwegian scientist Ole Rogeberg, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the IQ differences might well stem from differences in income, education and other factors. "The true effect," he said, "could be zero." It's pretty clear that heavy drinking is a far bigger danger to developing brains.

Those worried about the welfare of potheads might also want to take into account the dangers that exist only because cannabis is illegal. Criminals who grow or supply the stuff have little incentive to monitor quality, prevent adulteration or assure consistent doses.

A kid who gets his hands on beer doesn't have to worry about getting toxic chemicals or nasty fillers. Buying pot in illicit markets may also expose users of all ages to violence, robbery or extortion. But you don't see innocent bystanders getting killed in shootouts among liquor store owners.

The alternative to legalization is sticking with a policy that has produced millions of arrests, squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and turned many harmless people into criminals in the eyes of the law -- all while failing to stem the popularity of pot. For kids or adults, there is nothing healthy in that.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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