The annual Monitoring the Future survey of substance use by eighth, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and it shows students are drinking and smoking tobacco at historically low levels, but marijuana use is on the rise. Teen use of other drugs also generally declined, except for a slight increase in use of prescription drugs reported by seniors.
Federal drug war bureaucrats bemoaned the uptick in teen pot smoking at a Washington, DC, press conference rolling out the research results, but marijuana law reform activists had a different take on the numbers and what they mean.
Daily tobacco smoking by teens was down by 50% compared to the mid-1990s, while adolescent binge drinking had declined by 25% since 1997. About 10% of high school seniors reported daily cigarette smoking and about 20% reported smoking within the last month, down 40% from 1997. At all three grade levels, more students smoked pot in the last month than smoked cigarettes.
"The decrease is very dramatic," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "But despite the dramatic results, the prevalence of teen smoking and drinking is still high, so we can't become complacent. The troublesome news is that marijuana use has been trending upwards in the last few years. We've seen a significant decline in the perception that marijuana is risky. Fewer kids see smoking marijuana as having bad health effects."
While careful to point out that responsible marijuana reform activists do not encourage teen substance use, Mason Tvert, head of the activist group SAFER (Safe Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) and coauthor of Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? dared to suggest that young people who do use drugs are making smarter choices about which drugs they choose to use.
"We're always concerned about young people using drugs, but it's clear that more young people are understanding that marijuana is a less harmful substance and making that choice," said Tvert. "While we certainly don't want to promote marijuana use among minors, this report suggests they are making the safer choice to use marijuana rather than alcohol."
Tvert attributed both the rise in teen use and the decline in their perceptions of marijuana's risks to their increasing exposure to knowledge about marijuana.
"Ultimately, people are hearing more and more about the facts surrounding marijuana, and as they continue to hear that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol, that it doesn't contribute to violence, that there is no danger of a deadly overdose, they are increasingly more comfortable making that choice."
Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske used the Wednesday press conference to blame medical marijuana for the rise in teen pot smoking.
"These last couple years, the amount of attention that's been given to medical marijuana has been huge," he said. "And when I've done focus groups with high school students in states where medical marijuana is legal, they say, 'Well, if it's called medicine and it's given to patients by caregivers, then that's really the wrong message for us as high school students.'"
While Volkow and Kerlikowske lauded the use of prevention campaigns in reducing teen smoking and drinking, they did not say why such a strategy was not appropriate for marijuana, nor did they break with the prevailing prohibitionist approach to marijuana. That led to criticism from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
"This report, once again, clearly demonstrates that our nation's policymakers have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to addressing teen marijuana use," said Rob Kampia, MPP executive director. "Political leaders have for decades refused to regulate marijuana in order to keep it out of the hands of drug dealers who aren't required to check customer ID and have no qualms about selling marijuana to young people."
"The continued decline in teen tobacco and alcohol use is proof that sensible regulations, coupled with honest, and science-based public education can be effective in keeping substances away from young people," Kampia continued. "It's time we acknowledge that our current marijuana laws have utterly failed to accomplish one of their primary objectives -- to keep marijuana away from young people -- and do the right thing by regulating marijuana, bringing its sale under the rule of law, and working to reduce the easy access to marijuana that our irrational system gives teenagers."
"The decline in cigarette smoking is great news -- not just because it's the most deadly drug but also because it reveals that legal regulation and honest education are more effective than prohibition and criminalization," said DPA publications manager Jag Davies. "It's absurd, though, that the survey doesn't also include the fiscal, health and human costs of arresting more than 1.6 million Americans each year on drug charges, including more than 750,000 for marijuana possession alone."
"Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of the effectiveness of our nation's drug policies should be the reduction of drug-related harm," Davies continued. "A rational drug policy would prioritize reducing the problems associated with drug misuse itself -- such as overdose, addiction and disease transmission -- and the problems associated with drug prohibition, such as mass incarceration, erosion of civil liberties, and egregious racial disparities in enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. Looking at use rates in a vacuum is missing the forest for the trees."
"Arresting people for marijuana simply does not stop young people from using it, and it never will," said Kampia. "It is time for a more sensible approach."