U.S. High School Seniors Trade Their Tobacco For Weed

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse released its new survey of teen drug use today, with a remarkable finding: More high school seniors were smoking pot in 2010 than cigarettes.

For 12th-graders, declines in cigarette use accompanied by recent increases in marijuana use have put marijuana ahead of cigarette smoking by some measures. In 2010, 21.4 percent of high school seniors used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes.

The survey asked about drug use in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades. Use of MDMA, or ecstasy, is up, while binge drinking is down. Vicodin, barbiturate, steroid and cocaine use are down, while Oxycontin use stayed about the same. Heroin use was up slightly, but not in a way that concerned researchers. The biggest finding concerned the shifting social mores among teen pot smoking.

Related to its increased use, the perception that regular marijuana smoking is harmful decreased for 10th-graders (down from 59.5 percent in 2009 to 57.2 percent in 2010) and 12th-graders (from 52.4 percent in 2009 to 46.8 percent in 2010). Moreover, disapproval of smoking marijuana decreased significantly among eighth-graders.

One does not have to look far to identify the probable causes of this shift: The very public re-branding campaign of pot as a relatively harmless medicine. “We should examine the extent to which the debate over medical marijuana and marijuana legalization for adults is affecting teens’ perceptions of risk,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora D. Volkow. Clearly there is a need to deal with the way these messages filter down to kids. What is okay for a cancer patient is not necessarily okay for a 14-year-old. Anyone who argues that marijuana is harmless is simply misleading the public. But it is also true the Obama administration is struggling to find a counter-message. “No young person in today’s competitive world is going to be helped by using marijuana or other drugs,” said Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske, in a release that accompanied the report.

But how is a blanket statement like that supposed to penetrate high school students, when so many of the most successful people in the nation, including the last three presidents of the United States, have admitted to smoking pot? How does it explain their successful friends who they know smoke pot? The truth, of course, is far more complex than Kerlikowske suggests. Much like alcohol, marijuana can be damaging, or devastating, or it can be relatively innocuous. The public policy goal should be to educate kids about the real risks, and the legitimate rationales and consequences behind parental expectations, a cause that the medical marijuana/drug legalization lobby has a clear responsibility to join.

Also, take a look at Healthland’s take on the issue here, which adds some historical context:

Although marijuana use is increasing, the current rates are lower than those reported in this survey in the 1970s and early ’80s — daily marijuana use peaked with the class of 1978, 10.7% of whom reported daily marijuana smoking.

As for alcohol consumption, 23.2% of high school seniors reported binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages on a single occasion, in the past two weeks, compared to 25.2% in 2009. That number, too, is fortunately nowhere near its peak of 41.2% in 1980.

And a recent story for TIME magazine attempted to answer the question of whether or not marijuana is addictive.

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