Could Smoking Pot Be Good for Teens?

A new study from Switzerland raises the question: Might marijuana actually be good for teens? The answer is almost certainly no, but if one follows the logic used by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, aka the Drug Czar's office), the answer would be, "In some ways, yes."

If that seems confusing, allow me to explain.

The Swiss study, just published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine was based on a survey of 5,263 students, aged 16-20. Scientists compared teens who smoked both cigarettes and marijuana, those who used only marijuana, and those who abstained from both substances. The results were surprising.

By pretty much all measures, the youths using both marijuana and tobacco were doing the worst. Compared to those using marijuana only, they had poorer grades, were less likely to finish school, more likely to be depressed and more likely to get drunk frequently. Their marijuana use was also much more frequent than the marijuana-only group, and they were much more likely to have started smoking marijuana before age 15.

But the marijuana-only teens were strikingly similar to the abstainers, with very few statistically significant differences. The marijuana smokers were more likely to skip school but had comparable grades and were just as likely to finish their schooling as the abstainers. The marijuana users had more "sensation-seeking" personalities, which -- not surprisingly -- translated to somewhat higher use of alcohol or other drugs than the abstainers. But the marijuana-only group's use of alcohol and other drugs was far lower than the marijuana/cigarette group.

And in some ways the teens using marijuana looked better than the abstainers. They had better peer relationships, were more likely to be involved in sports and more likely to be on an academic (as opposed to vocational) track in school.

But these associations, as researchers call them, do not prove cause and effect. Just because A and B happen together tells nothing about whether A causes B, B causes A, or some third factor causes both A and B.

And that's where the Drug Czar gets into trouble. ONDCP regularly uses such correlations to frighten parents about marijuana in an utterly dishonest way. For example, an ONDCP ad published in major newspapers and magazines around the country bore the headline, "Marijuana can limit your teen's academic achievement." It went on to warn parents, "Marijuana use is linked to poorer grades. A teen with a 'D' average is four times more likely to have used marijuana than a teen with an 'A' average."

Well, yes, there was a study showing such an association, but just like the Swiss study, it did not and could not prove that marijuana caused the poorer grades. Indeed, there is a small mountain of evidence suggesting that it's the teens doing poorly in school who start smoking marijuana at a young age in the first place.

So by ONDCP's logic, it should now start running ads telling parents that smoking marijuana is linked to better peer relationships, involvement in athletics and more interest in academics. Don't hold your breath.

(It's worth noting here that there are good reasons to urge teens not to smoke marijuana. Some things, like psychoactive drugs, are simply best handled after one has acquired a bit of experience and maturity. Second, there are still unanswered questions about marijuana's effect on developing brains. Given that the brain uses marijuanalike chemicals as part of its natural communication system, pouring in large amounts of similar compounds while that neural circuitry is still developing seems needlessly risky until more is known.)

What the Swiss study does, if policymakers would only listen, is suggest that ONDCP's obsessive focus on stamping out even occasional marijuana use is misguided. The serious public health problem isn't good students who light up an occasional joint with friends on weekends, much as we might prefer they not do so. The real problem is the population of kids, clearly identifiable in the Swiss research, using multiple substances at an early age and having all sorts of problems at school and home. These kids -- more depressed, less likely to finish school and using heavy amounts of marijuana, booze and other drugs -- exist in the United States as well as Switzerland, and they clearly need help that many aren't getting.

For most of these teens, substance use likely wasn't the original cause of their problems, but it's almost certainly making them worse. ONDCP could be helping parents and schools identify these kids and get them help. Instead, officials cherry-pick data to bolster an ideological agenda while ignoring the real problem.

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