WASHINGTON -- When the U.S. Justice Department promised not to prosecute marijuana sales planned to begin in Washington state and Colorado next year, even though they remain illegal under federal law, its top lawyers demanded the states reciprocate with a pledge to keep the drug away from minors.
And officials in those pioneering pot states -- where recreational use of marijuana was approved by voters in November -- say they are ready to comply.
But to legalization opponents, such promises are a
pipe dream destined to fail. They say it is more likely the U.S. government will unleash a new industry that will try hard to attract young users and turn them into "addicts."
"Kids are going to be bombarded with this -- they're already getting the message that it's acceptable," said Kevin Sabet, a legalization opponent and director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute, who served as an advisor on drug issues to President Barack Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
With polls showing support for legalizing marijuana on the rise, questions about how it would affect children remain.
The debate has intensified as momentum for legalization builds and as research shows increased marijuana use among youngsters.
Supporters of legalization say they are just as eager to protect children as are opponents. They say the public has no reason to worry if the drug is sold openly in stores instead of on the streets.
"Forcing marijuana sales into the underground market is the worst possible policy when it comes to protecting our young people," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group. "It is odd that those who wish to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids are fighting to keep it as uncontrolled as possible."
Sabet said he hopes history will repeat itself and the tide will turn against legalization, as it did in the late 1970s when baby boomers began questioning how the drug would affect their children.
"It's really important to talk about the outcome for children," he said. "This is not just about the 45-year-old, otherwise-responsible adult smoking weed once a week in their basement."
Teens already are more likely to smoke pot than tobacco, according to a study released in December by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan.
In 2012, 23 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana in the past month, while 17 percent of the seniors said they had smoked tobacco. As recently as 2008, high school seniors were more likely to have smoked cigarettes than marijuana.
The study reported similar findings in past-month use for students in younger grades. Seventeen percent of the 10th-graders had used marijuana compared with 11 percent who had smoked cigarettes. Among eighth-graders, 6.5 percent had smoked pot compared with 5 percent who had smoked tobacco.