Smoking marijuana is part of the fabric of America, but acquiring a bag of weed is the riskiest part of prohibition for those age 18 to 20. Sadly, this remains the case even in legal-cannabis states. Only adults 21 and over are granted the right to buy and grow.

It's time for a serious talk about lowering the age threshold for legal cannabis to 18, even before we change the laws in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Looking at the data, and taking into account some extreme cases, this is best solution for the well-being of young adults.

Let's start with the data.

Pennsylvania marijuana possession rates, 2016.
Chris Goldstein
Pennsylvania marijuana possession rates, 2016.

According to data in the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System (PAUCRS), 17,748 adults were arrested for marijuana possession during 2016. Nearly one third of Pa.'s low-level weed arrests were those aged 18 to 20. That means police already have a focus on young adults with weed.

When these millennials get into trouble over marijuana, they face a very harsh set of consequences. The court system is the gateway to mandatory and often unnecessary drug treatment or state supervision. Untangling this mess can take years, especially if a permanent record is generated. Jobs and other opportunities are often systematically denied. For low-income adults who cannot afford a lawyer, a marijuana arrest could be the start of a longer relationship with the criminal justice system. And for those in a college or university it could end the path to a degree.

But legal problems pale in comparison to what young adults might endure in exposure to potential predators or in being coerced into the dangerous job of becoming a police informant. These problems aren't from the plant, but are the direct result of prohibition policy. While rare, the consequences are deadly.

Rachel Hoffmann was caught up in several low-level drug arrests in Florida and the 23-year-old was pressured into becoming a police informant. Hoffman was murdered in 2008 by the criminals she was sent to spy on and it opened up a national conversation about the practice. It turns out Hoffman was far from alone. She fit the common pattern of offenders whom police departments were putting into harm's way.

Bensalem police are fond of attempting to turn low-level marijuana arrests into information about other crimes.

Still, they never saw Cosmo Dinardo, who allegedly lured four young cannabis consumers to their deaths last summer with the promise to sell them weed. When the victims were identified as Jimi Patrick and Dean Finocchiro, both 19, along with Thomas Meo, 21, and Mark Sturgis, 22, it sent a streak of terror through the local underground cannabis community. Dinardo, 20, was a known supplier who had conspicuously gotten himself nominated to the Bensalem Drug and Alcohol Advisory Board.

Now, the tragic and brutal death of Temple University student Jenna Burleigh, 22, allegedly at the hands of a man who had large quantities of cash and drugs in his home, requires us to face these dangers and try to offer solutions.

The traditional cannabis market, while unregulated, is generally populated by good people who often care for their customers with unique compassion. But the underground is also unreliable, sending consumers to unknown sources.

In 1994 I was 18 and buying marijuana in Philadelphia when there were only a few walk-up purchasing options:

  • Hippies in West Philly were always safe and gregarious with the best quality.
  • A scary but steady place for cheap brick weed was simply to get in line at the many blocks available for for one-stop drug shopping. With the nonchalance of youth, I took some big gambles for just a little bit of bad smoke.
  • My personal favorites were the far safer "dime stores." Bodegas up and down Broad Street got into the game of selling $10 bags of pretty decent weed. The drill was to walk in, buy a 25-cent bag of chips and a soda, then say how many "dimes" you wanted. The steady stream of people walking out with a tiny bag of Fritos and giant smiles on their faces was an open secret in the neighborhood.

In 2017 things are far different. Instead of calling your guy's pager with a goofy code, millennials order marijuana from smartphone app menus. The underground today also offers a huge variety of products, with hash oil, edibles, vape cartridges, and top shelf bud often delivered for a slight convenience fee. Many other, far more sketchy, options remain.

We are leaving a significant population of consumers at serious risk even after legalization is established. For them, prohibition never ends. Forced to navigate the police and suppliers of the underground market, millennials are also spending their money on products that are not laboratory tested for quality. Who else buys weed on the street in Denver when there are daily specials for $99 ounces in gleaming, legal store cases?

The top priority should be the safety of young adults who consume cannabis, and this concept warrants setting the legal age at 18.