Young Adults Left Behind by Marijuana Legalization in Colorado, Washington

Major 'legalization' players satisfied with age limit, dissenters say prohibition should have ended for all adults.

Marijuana smoke fills the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., April 20, 2010 during an annual rally.

Marijuana smoke fills the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., April 20, 2010, during an annual rally.

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When Washington and Colorado residents voted to legalize marijuana in November—by 11-point margins in each state—18- to 21-year-old adults cast ballots for measures that left criminal sanctions affecting their age group untouched.

Leaders of the successful legalization campaigns told U.S. News that marijuana activists themselves devised the age restriction, and spokesmen for two of the largest national marijuana reform organizations said they won't push for lowering the age limit.

"It is still illegal for people under 21 to possess any amount of marijuana, and the penalties will be no different than they were before the initiative passed," explained Mason Tvert, a former co-director of the campaign in favor of Amendment 64, the Colorado pot-legalization initiative.

Tvert, who now acts as the spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it made sense to cap the pot-use age at 21 since Colorado doesn't allow anyone younger than that to consume alcohol, another "intoxicant."

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Marijuana Policy Project, a large national group that invested heavily in the Colorado initiative, "will not be working to lower the age limit in Colorado or any other state that passes similar legislation including a 21 age limit," Tvert said.

Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML—another influential pro-legalization group—explained to U.S. News that "NORML assists the victims of cannabis prohibition" and represents "the interests and concerns of the tens of millions of Americans who responsibly consume cannabis."

But, said St. Pierre, ongoing prohibition for 18- to 21-year-old adults isn't a concern for NORML.

"NORML's board of directors supports legal access to cannabis to be similar to that of alcohol," said St. Pierre in an E-mail. "If society deems 18 years old the age of 'consent,' fine. If society wants to stick with 21 years of age, fine with us too."

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Alison Holcomb, director of the successful Washington state legalization campaign, told U.S. News that in her state, as in Colorado, there were no changes to punitive laws against marijuana possession by those younger than 21.

"For now we can begin with a standard that is familiar to voters," Holcomb said. "Perhaps in the future, penalties will be reserved for people who provide dangerous substances to more vulnerable users rather than the users themselves."

Marijuana activist and attorney Douglas Hiatt told U.S. News that he opposed Initiative 502—the successful Washington legalization measure—because "it didn't get rid of prohibition."

"Looks like kids are starting to get targeted for driving and they're still being cited for marijuana," observed Hiatt. "I fail to understand that you can buy a gun, join the military, get a gun and kill someone and you can't buy a marijuana cigarette. It's ridiculous."

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The Colorado and Washington initiatives "duplicated the problem with alcohol" on college campuses, Hiatt said, and "in Washington they made it particularly bad by criminalizing DWI for any detectable amount of marijuana" in an 18- to 21-year-old driver's blood, a measurement that may or may not prove impairment.

Hiatt said MPP and NORML are “becoming the new establishment, they’re becoming conservative, and they think these pyrrhic victories are actually going to get us somewhere.”

Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy—a group with chapters on college campuses nationwide—told U.S. News that the age restriction "comes up for us on a regular basis because the majority of our constituency is people between the ages of 18 and 21."

"The irony is that some of the most enthusiastic people about legalizing marijuana work to pass legalization measures that don't actually benefit them ... We've seen this in Colorado and Washington. It is an ongoing problem," said Houston.

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"SSDP supported both the Washington and Colorado initiatives despite our misgivings. ... But we don't think it's the last step toward ending prohibition," Houston added.