TEENS AND DRUGS

A new survey of U.S. teenagers released August 20 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse generated shocked headlines nationwide. Newspapers across the country blared variations on the same theme: "Students Say Pot Easier to Buy than Beer, Cigarettes."

Well duh.

What almost no one in the media picked up on is that NCASA and others have been reporting similar results for years. The real story, which went virtually unreported, is that the new survey demonstrates the harm done to our youth by the "War on Drugs." We are, quite literally, driving kids to drink. Teens have been telling NCASA survey-takers since the mid-1990s that marijuana is easier for them to buy than beer -- at roughly the same proportion as in the new survey. The only real change is that the recent push to curb cigarette sales to minors has had some success in making tobacco harder for teens to get.

Last year, the government-funded Monitoring the Future study reported, "Since the study began in 1975, between 83% and 90% of every [high school] senior class has said that they could get marijuana fairly easily or very easily." Other government figures show that youth marijuana use has risen over 2000% since marijuana was banned by federal law in 1937. If the idea is to discourage teens from using marijuana, maybe -- just maybe -- prohibition hasn’t worked.

The real news in the survey is what’s happening to teens attitudes toward drinking. While a larger percentage than ever reported their schools as being "drug-free," the number of kids saying they get drunk at least once a month went up by over a third from last year.

An insight into that disturbing statistic is buried on page 37 of the NCASA report. Asked to rank tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, ecstacy and alcohol from most harmful to least harmful, 42% of teens ranked alcohol as "least harmful, while only 15% gave marijuana the "least harmful" rank. 27% rated marijuana as either the first or second most harmful, compared to just 10% for alcohol. That should scare any responsible parent out of their wits. By the two most objectively quantifiable measures, toxicity and addiction potential, alcohol is far more dangerous than marijuana. Alcohol kills over 100,000 Americans each year. It’s easy to fatally overdose on alcohol and, sadly, we hear of college kids and others doing just that every year. But the medical literature has never documented a single fatal marijuana overdose. Indeed, scientists have long agreed that it’s impossible to fatally overdose by smoking marijuana.

As for addiction, the Institute of Medicine -- in a 1999 study commissioned by the White House -- noted that 15% of alcohol users become dependent, compared to 9% of marijuana users. The British government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs came to the same conclusion earlier this year, stating that the addiction potential of marijuana is "well below nicotine and alcohol." But those potentially life-saving facts aren’t part of what we teach our kids. Instead, we bombard them with Drug War propaganda that crudely exaggerates the dangers of illegal drugs, leaving them with the mistaken impression that alcohol is relatively harmless. The price, alas, will be paid in corpses.

Bruce Mirken, a longtime health journalist whose work has appeared in Men’s Health, AIDS Treatment News and the San Francisco Chronicle, now serves as Director of Communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

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