On Sept. 18, 2022, Gov. Newsom signed a package of bills to “strengthen California’s cannabis laws, expand the legal cannabis market and redress the harms of cannabis prohibition.”
What he failed to do, along with legislators across the state, was to strengthen protections for young people by reducing marijuana’s marketing appeal and product access to those under 21.
For decades we’ve known which products are most attractive to youth and that industries intentionally market to teens to cultivate the next generation of users.
We’ve watched the tobacco industry with Joe Camel and modernized JUUL and e-cigarettes; and the alcohol industry with Budweiser frogs prior to creating a plethora of fruity-flavored, high-alcohol content drinks like Four Loko.
I’ve served on the Board of Directors of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition (NCPC) since 2003, drawn both personally and professionally to a collaborative approach to prevent youth substance use.
Having grown up in the chaos of drug-using parents, I made the choice to never partake in alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs, and at 45 years old, my resolution is stronger than ever.
NCPC has been making progress in reducing youth substance use, with over two-thirds of high school juniors in our region reporting no use in their lifetime. But that progress took collective action, commitment, resources and agreement that preventing youth access to alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other illicit drugs was a priority.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to our state’s approach to youth and marijuana. The governor’s priority is the expansion of an industry, not the protection of its young people: “I look forward to partnering with the Legislature and policymakers to fully realize cannabis legalization in communities across California.”
This recently approved bill requires that all California cities permit deliveries of medical marijuana. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, which both now have a purchase age of 21, medical marijuana can be sold to those 18 and over with a recommendation they can easily obtain online.
Unlike an actual prescription, the “recommendation” comes with no potency limits, no product specifications and no timeframe. And it’s a recommendation for a product that research has demonstrated may contribute to teen anxiety, depression and psychosis, among other challenges.
In late spring of 2020, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) conducted a series of alcohol delivery compliance checks across the state. Initial violation rates were alarmingly high (at 79% in April 2020) and the ABC issued industry warnings to noncompliant licensees.
According to statewide data, the violation rate dropped to 18% as of April 2021 and 246 misdemeanor citations have been issued.
It is routine for the state to award grants to local cities to conduct compliance checks to prevent alcohol and tobacco sales to minors and to issue fines and penalties to businesses found in violation.
Yet with a focus on expanding the retail cannabis market, there is nothing similar to prevent youth access to marijuana and the Department of Cannabis Control could fill that gap by mandating compliance checks.
Our concerns are not without cause.
Despite years of accomplishment in reducing youth substance use in our region, marijuana is now the only substance which is NOT seeing declines in youth use, and 2019 marked the first time in Oceanside and Vista that reported past-month marijuana use by 11th graders was higher than alcohol use.
After decades of effort in this field, we know the connections between youth substance use and the devolution to harder illicit drugs, including those that are now laced with fentanyl.
Until we look upstream to ensure policies don’t lead young people down a path of easy access to substances, including marijuana, I fear we will continue to suffer senseless tragedies.
For more information about North Coastal Prevention Coalition visit: northcoastalpreventioncoalition.org.
Aaron Byzak is president of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition Board of Directors and a resident of Vista.