Officials in Colorado have dreamed up a new, if silly, way to fight teenage marijuana use.
The state has launched a new ad campaign designed to cut down on teen pot use. The ads focus on health concerns rather than legal issues or the usual anti-drug fear mongering.
The aim is to encourage children to stay away from weed by suggesting that Colorado has become a de facto research lab testing the effects of legalization. That, the ads say, turns teens who use marijuana into lab rats.
The centerpieces of the campaign, which is called “Don’t Be a Lab Rat,” are human-size cages that have been positioned around Denver. Accompanying ads are playing on TV, raising questions about the effects of cannabis on teen brains.
Mike Sukle, the Colorado ad exec behind the project, said the goal is to make kids think rather than trying to scare them with exaggerated consequences.
“We don’t say, ‘It’s absolute,’” Sukle said. “We say, ‘This study exists. Some people dispute that. Make up your own mind.’ At some point, they have to make up their mind. The days of Just Say No, that was a fairly failed effort.”
Notably for an anti-marijuana campaign, the ads and installations don’t try to discourage adult drug use. Instead they focus entirely on underage consumption.
“Studies have shown that weed could shrink the teenage brain, lead to schizophrenia, cause long-term memory loss and reduce IQ,” reads a sign on one of the cages. “Anyone up for more testing?”
Indeed, some studies suggest early pot use can cause structural changes in the brain similar to those experienced by people with schizophrenia (though not actual shrinking of the brain itself).
The claim that toking causes schizophrenia is not supported by research, however, even in teenagers. The most these studies prove is that there appears to be an unknown correlation between the two, not that one actually causes the other.
Marijuana is known to cause short-term memory lapses in almost everyone who uses it heavily. Research on long-term memory problems among teens is much muddier, since there’s no evidence these problems are permanent, even for kids who smoke every day.
The claim that marijuana use will lower the IQ of young tokers is also questionable.
For one thing, IQ scores are notoriously unhelpful as a measure of general intelligence. There are plenty of morons with 150 IQs and plenty of brilliant people with 120s. JFK was a measly 119.
For another thing, the most the studies suggest is that marijuana might decrease IQ scores by an average of six points. But that applies mostly to adult users, not kids.
Most importantly, the overall findings of these studies remain weak – not because they’re false but because more research and scientific replication of the experiments is needed.
Still, there are many legitimate questions about the roll of weed on the adolescent brain that need to be explored. In the meantime, the people behind the ad campaign hope to send a sane message that doesn’t backfire and encourage more toking.
Any message that tries to scare teens with overblown consequences of smoking up might instead encourage kids to toke more. After all, the ads represent The Man – and there’s nothing teenagers love to do more than rebel against The Man. Especially when they conclude the “marijuana epidemic” must be so big it includes all their friends. Children tend to think like children, and on those terms the only reasonable choice is to join the crowd and toke weed.
“If we’re going to talk to kids, we need to be sure the message – and the messenger – will resonate,” said an unnamed member of Sukle’s team.
“Their [adolescent] brain makes them who they are,” Sukle said. “Their brain is the key to opening up all those experiences down the road.”