S.F. Changes Tune with Youth and Marijuana

With citywide cannabis legalization happening for adults Jan. 5, teenagers are going to have easier access to drugs — prompting concern from the Department of Public Health.

That marijuana is legal to buy in San Francisco for those ages 21 and older is the result of decades of work — and with the impending change to the policy, city departments are hustling to catch up. Among those is the Department of Public Health, which announced last week that it would continue to educate youth on the “facts and risks” of cannabis — though with less of a 1980s, D.A.R.E.-scare mentality. Instead, it appears that youth-targeted marijuana education and guidelines will run more in line with anti-drinking and alcohol abuse campaigns.

“With the loosening of restrictions for adults, and the expected surge in cannabis businesses and advertising, it is crucial that teenagers know the facts,” says Barbara Garcia, San Francisco’s health director. “Young people are smart. We need to support them with clear information about the new law, the risks of cannabis use and how to withstand the influence of targeted advertising.”

Despite San Francisco’s reputation for smoking weed, youth in the city use it less frequently than one might expect. A study by the National Drug Early Warning System showed that 71 percent of San Francisco high schoolers have never used marijuana, compared to 59 percent nationwide. Eighty-three percent of high schoolers are not “current” or regular users.

But the study — which took place between 2009 and 2015 — did show a disparity between marijuana use and race. American Indian, African American, and white high school students in San Francisco use weed the most, while only three percent of Chinese students say they regularly partake in the drug. Boys and girls consume at a similar rate, though LGBTQ students use more cannabis than their straight counterparts.

This data is helpful for the Department of Public Health as they figure out where to target their informational campaigns. It will be keeping an eye on the numbers of cannabis retailers in low-income neighborhoods, the strength of commonly consumed items like edibles, and if advertising targets youth. Based on state law, cannabis ads are prohibited within 1,000 feet of a daycare, kindergarten, playground, youth center, or school.

“Using cannabis is not something that every teenager does, despite the myths and messages to the contrary,” Garcia says. “We’d like to keep it that way and support youth in their decision-making.”