The movement to legalize cannabis used to be centered on the catastrophic impact of the drug war. Now the conversation has shifted to the medical utility of cannabis and the excitement of filling state coffers with tax revenue. But without dedicated attention to those most harmed by police enforcement of drug laws, their situation might not improve. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlights how the youth have been left behind because legalization often does not reduce penalties for underage possession. Legalization efforts need to include stipulations for decriminalizing — or entirely depenalizing — youth possession of cannabis. Researchers at Eastern Virginia Medical school examined the arrest rate of youths and adults in states that have either decriminalized or legalized cannabis over 16 years. Legalizing adult use of cannabis has not reduced the arrest rate of minors for nonviolent possession. Decriminalizing cannabis, however, with it’s emphasis on stemming the imprisonment of drug users, is effective. Alaska, Colorado, and Washington have all kept criminal penalties for youth possession despite legalizing cannabis for adults. A brief editorial accompanied the JAMA article to further describe how much damage cannabis arrests continue to cause. They highlight that, between 18 and 20 years old, people are not protected by adult-use laws, nor by juvenile court. This group — too young to get high, but old enough for war — is especially vulnerable to forever being stigmatized with a felony charge for cannabis use. “This scenario seems perverse, especially in view of the well-established research finding that decriminalization has no measurable association with the prevalence or intensity of cannabis use at any age.” The editorial goes on to describe why full depenalization for cannabis possession is necessary: racial and socioeconomic disparities are great enough that an unpayable civil fine lands many people in jail anyway. In South Australia, more people are being arrested for not paying a cannabis fine than used to be arrested for possession.
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