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Human-Sized Rat Cages Target Teen Marijuana Use

DENVER (CBS4) - "Who will be their guinea pigs?"

That's the question a new ad campaign aimed at discouraging teen marijuana use is asking.

Created by the state of Colorado and the city of Denver, the anti-pot campaign unveiled several nine-foot-tall human-sized rat cages on Monday that bear a simple message: Because so much is still unknown about pot's effects on kids' brains, teens who do smoke it become unwitting research subjects.

The $2 million "Don't Be a Lab Rat" campaign was funded by legal settlements with pharmaceutical companies. It will also feature TV commercials starting Monday that suggest marijuana impairs mental function in teens' still-developing brains and could cause long-term mental problems.

Among the campaign's messages: If you're younger than 25, smoking marijuana means you're gambling on losing IQ points.

Lab Rat Cages
One of the human-sized lab rat cages (credit: CBS)

"While much still needs to be learned about the effect marijuana has on the brain, enough information is available to cause concern in terms of the negative effects marijuana can have on the developing brains of teenagers," Dr. Larry Wolk, the executive director and chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement. "The core premise of the 'Don't Be a Lab Rat' campaign acknowledges that more research is necessary."

The campaign set up cages in various locations around the state, including the Denver Public Library, a skate park west of downtown, Fort Collins and Red Rocks. Tarps covering them were expected to be removed Monday morning.

Marijuana Ad Campaign
One of the lab rat cages at the Denver Public Library (credit: CBS)

"Kids buy into it. They understand the research and the facts behind it,"Mike Sukle, one of the campaign's creators, said.

Subtitles in the ad, across a grim lineup of scientists in lab coats, read: "Northwestern University scientists discovered that teen marijuana use caused lasting memory loss." A website running in conjunction with the campaign warns, "Scientists from Duke to Cambridge have uncovered a laundry list of troubling side effects. Schizophrenia. Permanent IQ loss. Stunted brain growth."

Marijuana Ad Campaign
Part of the TV commercials (credit: CBS)

Mason Tvert, one of the primary proponents behind marijuana legalization in Colorado, told CBS4 the campaign was misguided and won't deter teen usage.

"You don't have to say, 'You're going to become a lab rat and it's going to destroy you.' This is the same type of fear-mongering that's failed to prevent teen marijuana use for decades," he said.

RELATED: Vandals Don't Take Long To Hit Rat Cages Used In Anti-Pot Ad Campaign

Tvert, also the communications director for the pro-pot Marijuana Policy Project, said teens won't respect the campaign: "All you have to do is be honest with young people. Tell them, 'These are the potential harms of this substance.' "

In a blog post published Friday on its website, MPP said teen marijuana consumption is declining since legalization, citing a news release from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

"According to preliminary data from the state's biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, in 2013 – the first full year the drug was legal for adults 21 and older – 20 percent of high school students admitted using pot in the preceding month and 37 percent said they had at some point in their lives.

"The survey's 2011 edition found 22 percent of high school students used the drug in the past month and 39 percent had ever sampled it.

"It's unclear if the year-to-year decline represents a statistically significant change, but data from 2009 suggests a multiyear downward trend. That year 25 percent of high school kids said they used pot in the past month and 45 percent said they had ever done so."

Mason Tvert
Mason Tvert (credit: CBS)

The state, meanwhile, maintains that addiction is more likely if someone starts using marijuana at a younger age. The state cited a study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse: "Its research shows that 9 percent of people who start using marijuana as an adult will become addicted, whereas 17 percent of people who start using marijuana between the ages of 13 and 25 will become addicted."

Recreational marijuana continues to climb in popularity. Retail marijuana hauled in nearly $25 million in sales in June, its best month yet. Recreational marijuana is drawing close to medical pot for total sales.

The state has collected nearly $30 million in tax revenue for both medical and recreational marijuana since January, when Colorado's first recreational stores opened. Personal marijuana use became legal on Dec. 10, 2012.

- Written by Tim Skillern for

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