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Teen Drug Use Survey Figures Spark Marijuana Debate


youth teen young adult marijuana usage medical marijuanaBy Phillip Smith

This year’s annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey on the habits of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and most of the results were uncontroversial. But with two states having already legalized marijuana for adults and opinion polls suggesting more and more Americans are ready to move ahead with legalization, battles are raging over the numbers on teen marijuana use and what they mean.

The survey found that for most drugs, teen use levels are stable or declining. Synthetic marijuana use was down, as was cigarette smoking, alcohol drinking, and the use of inhalants, synthetic stimulants, prescription opioids, salvia divinorum, and hallucinogens other than LSD.

Drugs where teen use levels were stable included LSD; amphetamines; Adderall, specifically; Ritalin, specifically; ecstasy; cocaine; crack; heroin; methamphetamine; crystal methamphetamine; sedatives; tranquilizers; Rohypnol; Ketamine; and steroids. For most of these drugs, use levels even in 12th grade were quite low. For instance, 2.2% of seniors reported using LSD, 2.3% reported using Ritalin, and 4.0% reported using ecstasy.

When it comes to marijuana, 23% of seniors said they smoked in the month prior to the survey, 18% of 10th graders did, too, and so did 12% of 8th graders. Some 6.5% of seniors reported daily use, as did 4.0% of 10th graders, and under 2% of 8th graders.

It helps to put those numbers in historical perspective. All of the numbers are above the historic lows in teen drug use reported at the end of the Reagan-Bush era in the early 1990s, but well below the historic highs in teen drug use reported in 1979, just before the Reagan-Bush era began.

For seniors, the all-time low for monthly use was 11.9% in 1992, but the recent high was 23.1% in 1999. This year’s 22.7% is actually a decline of two-tenths of a percent from 2012, and in line with figures for the past decade showing rates hovering in the upper teens and low twenties. It’s a similar story at the younger grade levels.

The survey also found that the notion that regular use of marijuana is harmful is losing favor among teens. Only 39.5% of seniors saw it as harmful, down from 44.1% last year, and down significantly from views over the past two decades.

Despite the relative flatness of the marijuana use numbers, some warned that the sky is falling, cherry-picking the numbers and warming to favored themes to support their points of view.

“Let these numbers be a wakeup call to parents and decision-makers alike,” said Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy advisor in the Obama Administration now serving as the director of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). “There is no way to properly ‘regulate’ marijuana without allowing an entire industry to encourage use at a young age, to cast doubt on the science, and to make their products attractive — just like Big Tobacco did for 50 years. Today’s Big Marijuana is no different.”

“These increases in marijuana use over the past few years are a serious setback in our nation’s efforts to raise a healthy generation of young people,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Teens deserve to grow up in an environment where they are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and drug use never factors into that equation. Today’s news demands that all of us recommit to bolstering the vital role prevention and involved parenting play in keeping young people safe, strong, and ready to succeed.”

“This is not just an issue of increased daily use,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse(NIDA) “It is important to remember that over the past two decades, levels of THC — the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — have gone up a great deal, from 3.75% 1995 to an average of 15% in today’s marijuana cigarettes. Daily use today can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago.”

Volkow also latched onto figures showing that 12% of 8th graders had tried marijuana in their lives.

“We should be extremely concerned that 12% of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana,” Volkow added. “The children whose experimentation leads to regular use are setting themselves up for declines in IQ and diminished ability for success in life.”

In 2012, MTF added questions about where students obtain marijuana. In states that have medical marijuana, 34% of pot-smoking seniors said one of the ways they got their marijuana was through someone else’s prescription (recommendation). And 6% said they got it with their own recommendation.

“A new marijuana industry is forming in front of our eyes, and make no mistake about it: they are delighted their customers — today’s youth — consider their product safe,” remarked former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, a Project SAM cofounder. “The rise of legalization and medical marijuana has sent a message to young people that marijuana use is harmless and non-addictive.”

But while the drug czar, Dr. Volkow, and Project SAM were sounding the tocsin about the threat of teen marijuana use, others reacted more calmly, taking solace from the findings that teen cigarette smoking and drinking, not to mention other drugs, had declined.

“These findings should put to rest any claims that reforming marijuana laws and discussing the benefits will somehow contribute to more teens using marijuana,” said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s time for prohibition supporters to stop hiding behind teens when debating marijuana policy.”

The declines in teen cigarette smoking and drinking show that regulation — not prohibition — is the way to address substance use, Tvert said.

“Regulation clearly works and prohibition has clearly failed when it comes to protecting teens,” he argued. “Regulating alcohol and tobacco has resulted in significant decreases in use and availability among teens, and we would surely see similar results with marijuana. At the very least, this data should inspire NIDA and other government agencies to examine the possibility that regulating marijuana could be a more effective approach to preventing teen use.”

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Johnny Green


  1. Dr. Volkow’s potency numbers are wrong. It’s sad to see someone who’s supposed to be the fed’s voice of science in the drug policy debate mislead so badly, especially when the numbers are available.

    According to the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project – which has the federal contract to carry out that research, based on seized samples from feds, states, and locals – in 1995, commercial-grade non-domestic (imported) cannabis averaged 3.95% THC, and non-domestic sinsemilla-type cannabis averaged 9.64%. Domestic commercial-grade cannabis averaged 2.55%, and domestic sinsemilla-type cannabis averaged 7.26% THC.

    There’s a reason she chose 1995: In 1996, commercial-grade non-domestic (imported) cannabis averaged 4.41% THC, and non-domestic sinsemilla-type cannabis averaged 11.30%. Domestic commercial-grade cannabis averaged 2.90%, and domestic sinsemilla-type cannabis averaged 8.94% THC. And in 1997, commercial-grade non-domestic (imported) cannabis averaged 4.93% THC, and non-domestic sinsemilla-type cannabis averaged 12.02%. Domestic commercial-grade cannabis averaged 3.34%, and domestic sinsemilla-type cannabis averaged 11.50% THC.

    In 2000, non-domestic commercial grade marijuana averaged 5.10% THC. The
    non-domestic sinsemilla type averaged 12.87%. Domestic commercial grade
    marijuana averaged 3.96% THC, and domestic sinsemilla type averaged

    In 2010, non-domestic commercial grade marijuana averaged 6.69% THC.
    Non-domestic sinsemilla type averaged 12.81% THC. Domestic commercial
    grade marijuana averaged 2.79% THC, and domestic sinsemilla type
    averaged 11.84%.

    The Project’s quarterly reports are actually hard to come by, but the White House’s annual National Drug Control Strategy has a data supplement, which has a table listing the Project’s estimated cannabis potencies starting back in 1985.

    Unfortunately, according to a footnote on the 2013 table, the Project stopped testing domestic samples, 2010 was the final year for that, though they do continue to test non-domestic samples, that’s why I used them. The numbers don’t seem to be outliers, though having said that, domestic sinsemilla had been much lower prior to 2010, and 2010’s domestic estimates were based on fewer samples than in previous years, so it’s tough to say.

    The bottom line is, her numbers were wrong, and it was deliberately misleading. Why that matters, is because Dr. Volkow is not just another hack politician, she’s not an uninformed blogger, she’s a respected psychiatrist with a long executive career and for the past 10 years she has been the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Her official public comments are supposed to be fact-based, not idle chatter.

    That table btw is reproduced in Drug War Facts at http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Marijuana#THCTable

  2. I keep repeating that prohibition makes things seem more fun as a preachers daughter who went off the deep end very quickly as a kid this i know…i tried it all. Prohibition helps glamorization

  3. Right. The naked emperor has ruled for many decades. Thank Gaia, we are finally dethroning him.

  4. I can not help but think that some of the numbers would be off anyways. As a teen I was one of very few that would be honest about my use. You have to assume that all these teens are being honest. Can that really be done? When you are raised in fear that you risk prosecution, would you have answered 5-20 years ago that yes you I fact partake. I shared a circle where most lied to keep their nose clean. With the approval spreading, more people are willing now to say that they have or do. Just a thought.

  5. >>>”drug use never factors into that equation”

    So what explains the fact that every broadcast of a sporting event – especially the “big” ones – has long, flashy beer commercials?

    Why do these “concerned” interests want to force Americans to choose the most harmful recreational drug?

  6. “Teens deserve to grow up in an environment where they are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and drug use never factors into that equation.”

    Sure, tell that to every Silicon Valley geek who frequents a dispensary. Or try telling that to the President, who, no matter how you feel about him, is, after all, the President.

    “Daily use today can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago.”

    It might occur to some that, when weed is stronger, you’re just able to smoke less of it.

    “We should be extremely concerned that 12% of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana…”

    No, we should be extremely concerned that teenagers are using alcohol or cigarettes, or if they are bullies, or can’t read. We should look at a 12%-use statistic as just what it is, the number of people who (more or less) are into experimentation (of any kind). It is low enough to be considered a placebo effect.

    “…today’s youth — consider their product safe…”

    That’s because they are smarter than yesterday’s youth.

    “The rise of legalization and medical marijuana has sent a message to young people that marijuana use is harmless and non-addictive.”

    Mary: Grandma, what’s that smell?
    Grandma: That’s my medicine, dear.
    Mary: Does that means it is harmless and non-addictive?
    Grandma: Mary, don’t be a boob.

    Young people get a lot of messages these days, from alcohol and prescription medication ads, to war and violence (along with stupidity). And they are more savvy then previous generations at sifting through the bullshit. The people who made the war on drugs infamous have only themselves to blame for the results, which is a more-educated population (isn’t the internet great?). And big pharma can thank those that want to endlessly debate healthcare in this country, while people continue to go without basic medical and dental care — it opened up a space for people to get their medical needs met by nature, not big pharma.

    In other words, all the people who have and are still fighting against this plant are now having to fight the patients and people that these groups have done the most damage to. And marijuana, the wonderful plant that it is, has given power back to patients and the people. You think gun owners are crazy about their guns? It is nothing compared to how patients feel about their plant.

    At some point in time, the funds backing anti-drug policies and figureheads will dry up, and these groups will be heard from less and less. As is happening already. If I were them, I would give up gracefully. Alternatively, they can continue to make themselves… irrelevant.

    End rant

  7. Cannabis made learning fun for me. It will affect others differently, like any other drugs and/or substance.

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