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Minors in possession vs. Marijuana possession


For those under 21, California now has more severe punishments for alcohol than marijuana. On January 1, 2011 SB 1449 went into effect making possession of one ounce or less of marijuana an infraction. There is no age restriction on this law and thus those under 21 would face the same $100 fine as adults for a violation, though it appears a minor's license may still be revoked. Further, because it is an infraction, there is no court record, stepped up punishments for repeat offenders or education/treatment referrals. Possession of marijuana in a vehicle (notwithstanding impaired driving violations) will garner the same $100 fine. Only possession of more than an ounce, possession of concentrated marijuana, or possession on K-12 school grounds is considered a misdemeanor.


Contrast this with a Minor in Possession of alcohol charge. Any amount of alcohol on or in the person under 21 will result in a misdemeanor charge. Fines are $250 for the first offense and $500 for a second offense. There may also be community service, treatment or education referrals imposed or agreed to as part of a plea bargain. Added to this is a suspension of the driver’s license for 1 year.

Both alcohol and marijuana use by those under 21 may lead to long term developmental harm (Griffin, Bang, & Botvin, 2010), both lead to increased risk of traffic deaths and injuries (Hingson, 1982; O'Malley & Johnston, 2007; Sewell, Poling, & Sofuoglu, 2009). However, there is far greater documentation of alcohol’s role in sexual and other assaults (Abbey, 2002; Giancola, 2002; Hingson, Zha, & Weitzman, 2009; Perkins, 2002), and it would appear that alcohol’s negative impact on campuses is disproportionately high when compared to marijuana. Thus from a campus public health perspective alcohol should be of more concern than marijuana.

So this means, while it is clear that neither alcohol nor marijuana should be recommended for those under 21, both California law and public health research point to same conclusion: Marijuana should be of lesser concern for prevention than alcohol. Thus while speaking to those under 21, after encouraging abstinence from both alcohol and marijuana, when marijuana is discussed, the focus should be on impaired driving, delaying first use, and moderation for those who choose to use; just as we do for alcohol. For in California, it a more serious crime for a 19-year-old to hold a can of beer than to smoke a joint.


Abbey, A. (2002). Alcohol-related sexual assault: a common problem among college students. Journal of studies on alcohol. Supplement., (14), 118.

Giancola, P. (2002). Alcohol-related aggression during the college years: theories, risk factors and policy implications. Journal of studies on alcohol. Supplement., (14), 129.

Griffin, K. W., Bang, H., & Botvin, G. J. (2010). Age of alcohol and marijuana use onset predicts weekly substance use and related psychosocial problems during young adulthood. Journal of Substance Use, 15(3), 174-183.

Hingson, R. (1982). Teenage driving after using marijuana or drinking and traffic accident involvement. Journal of Safety Research, 13(1), 33-38.

Hingson, R., Zha, W., & Weitzman, E. R. (2009). Magnitude of and Trends in Alcohol-Related Mortality and Morbidity Among U.S. College Students Ages 18-24, 1998-2005. Journal Of Studies On Alcohol And Drugs, Supplement 16, 12-20.

O'Malley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2007). Drugs and driving by American high school seniors, 2001-2006. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 68(6), 834-842.

Perkins, H. (2002). Surveying the damage: A review of research on consequences of alcohol misuse in college populations. Journal of studies on alcohol (Supplement), (14), 91-100.

Sewell, R. A., Poling, J., & Sofuoglu, M. (2009). The effect of cannabis compared with alcohol on driving. The American Journal on Addictions, 18(3), 185-193.