Study: Why Teen Pot Smoking Could be a Good Thing (And What We Can Learn From Teens Who Choose Weed Over Beer)


The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) released the results of its 2011 Monitoring the Future Survey of teen drug use, and guess what:  Teens are using cigarettes and alcohol less, but they are smoking more marijuana. What's more,  they're smoking more weed because they do not perceive it to be as harmful as did teens in the past. Teens' level of "associated risk" with marijuana use has gone done over time, and marijuana is, indeed, less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes: This could be an argument for more honest drug education in schools.

Associated risk is the danger or harm believed to be a consequence of drug use.  If associated risk for a particular substance goes up,  more people are reporting that they consider using that drug to be a threat. In other words, as associated risk goes down, more people are saying the drug in question is not that bad. According to the NIDA study, a decline in marijuana's associated risk contributed to teens smoking more pot, while drinking less alcohol and smoking fewer cigarrettes. Thus, many teens actually showed good judgement, by using available information to determine the danger posed by particular substances, and making smart decisions accordingly.

According to the study, about 25% of teens surveyed said they tried marijuana at least once last year, a statistically significant rise of about 4% since 2007. Additionally, 6.6% of 12th graders  also admitted to smoking weed daily.  

Frequent marijuana use is the highest it has been since 1981, but cigarette and alcohol use also reached historic lows.  11.7 percent of U.S. teens reported having smoked a cigarette in the last 30 days, compared to 12.8 percent in 2010. According to the report, a twenty-year gradual decline in  alcohol use continued into 2011, and the decrease in that year alone was also significant:

"Over the past 20 years, from 1991 to 2011, the proportion of 8th graders reporting any use of alcohol in the prior 30 days has fallen by about half (from 25% to 13%), among 10th graders by more than one third (from 43% to 27%), and among 12th graders by about one fourth (from 54% to 40%)."

These findings are important, as alcohol and cigarettes are more deadly and addictive than pot. The report acknowledged that decreases in associated risk may play a factor in the increases in marijuana use. The decline in teens’ perception of marijuana’s harmfulness could be linked to public discussion of  medical marijuana dispensaries and the ongoing debate about the medical benefits of marijuana. Thus, the study's own data proves what NIDA and other drug war institutions incessantly deny: Knowledge -- even if it shows the benefits of a drug -- matters. Give young people accurate information, and they will use it to make better decisions that result in less harm to themselves, because teens, like everybody else, do not actually want to get hurt or become addicts.

This is the importance of harm reduction education. Understanding the varying addictive nature and likelihood of overdose or impurity of different drugs will help teens to make smarter decisions when they begin to experiment. Giving students honest information about drugs, like appropriate dosage, and providing information about safe injection (or other methods of use),  does not necessarily insure that they will use drugs. It does, however, increase the odds that they will use drugs safely, and reduce the likelihood of experiencing the harms associated with drugs. But to win the trust of young people so that they take this information seriously, educators must also be honest about the harm or risk associated with different drugs, and it's not one size fits all.

Though marijuana is a much safer drug than cigarettes or alcohol, not many officials are recognizing that marijuana's increase in use may have been a good thing, as it appears to be contributing to historic lows in cigarette and alcohol use.  According to the New York Times, R. Gil Kerlikowske, the federal drug czar, said he believed increasing prevalence of medical marijuana contributed to a rise in teens' marijuana use -- but not in a positive way.

“These last couple years, the amount of attention that’s been given to medical marijuana has been huge,” he told the New York Times, “And when I’ve done focus groups with high school students in states where medical marijuana is legal, they say, ‘Well, if its called medicine and it’s given to patients by caregivers, then that’s really the wrong message for us as high school students.’”

The context of the article suggests that Kerlikowske is implying that medical marijuana, though only available to card carrying adults at least 18 or 21 years old, has not only made pot easier to get, but has also made weed seem safer than he would like students to believe. To the disadvantage of his argument,  pot has never killed anyone, and medical marijuana shows benefits for people living with glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and PTSD.  And while pot may be more available in states where it is legal for medical reasons, in recent years, pot's associated risk has decreased more substantially than its availability has risen.

Additionally, recent data released by the Institute for the Study of Labor  in Bonn, Germany,  a research center for science, politics, and business, showed no evidence that the availability of medical marijuana influenced teens' use. What the study did find is that marijuana use is higher among adults  in states where voters supported the legislation, and that the increase in use is actually  beneficial: Researchers concluded that smoking more and drinking less contributed to a 9% decrease in traffic fatalities.

And still, rather than accept the reality that teens always have, and always will, experiment with drugs, NIDA  is calling its new marijuana statistics "depressing."  NIDA and Kerlikowske  are, in effect, advocating for prohibition and the limitation of information to explain only the most negative effects of drugs, even though some are more dangerous, or better for you, than others, rather than providing education that helps teens understand their health options, and ways of reducing the harm of drugs.

Last year, 11.4% of 12th grade students smoked synthetic marijuana like K2 and Spice, sold previously in head shops and gas stations, until many states banned them. Last week, as I wrote about on AlterNet, the House of Representatives voted to ban more than 40 substances found in once legal synthetic drugs. Their focus was on fake pot and bath salts, which are not a tub accessory, but research chemicals that mimmic the highs of cocaine or meth amphetamine.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had already used its emergency scheduling power to classify a handful of these drugs into Schedule I, but the House voted not only to ban dozens more, but also to give the DEA the power to emergency schedule substances for 3 years instead of 18 months. Now, the DEA will have twice the time to investigate and determine whether the substances have medical benefits, as once they’re in Schedule I, it is assumed they have none. Marijuana's placement in the Schedule I category has proven to allow little to no research conducted by anyone other than the inherently anti-marijuana organization NIDA.

In a press release, Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study, said about synthetic marijuana, “Next year’s results should tell us a lot more about how successful these new control efforts are...We know that the great majority of those who have used synthetic marijuana also used regular marijuana during the year, as well as a number of other drugs.”

“We know that any substance that is legally available is more widely used," Kerlikowske told the Los Angeles Times.

Even if that were true by all accounts, and more people were smoking fake pot than the real stuff (which, as even this study showed, they're not), this argument would be a great reason to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize non-medical possession. Teens are going to do something, so why not allow them to purchase the safest drug out there, without risking arrests that could ruin their lives, by chopping away at education and employment opportunities?

Speaking of unsafe drugs, Johnston, the study, the House of Representatives, and the DEA, have not dedicated to prescription pill abuse the same time and conversation they have allotted  to these synthetic drugs, because prohibition is not an option.

“While the misuse of prescription drugs remains a very important part of the picture,” Johnston said, in one hell of a euphemism, “at least their use seems no longer to be growing among teens, and some are declining in use.” The report also acknowledges the Food and Drug Administration's coordination with state and local agencies to conduct a "take-back program" to get rid of extra pills, as if hardcore addicts not medically prescribed are getting high every day off their friends' left overs instead of buying them on the street or from a corrupt doctor-- and, perhaps more naive --  as if taking away a pill eliminates addiction to opioids, the key ingredient in heroin.

Availability itself is clearly not a sole determinant in teens' substance use, as the study itself suggested. Like all life decisions, associated risk, or whether one expects the act to be harmful,  is a huge factor. Thus, when teens are told that if they do LSD, they will stare at the sun until they lose their vision, or that cocaine will make their hearts explode, but their friends report positive experiences with these drugs, they lose trust in the people supposed to educate them on how to safely navigate a society filled with drugs.  The result is that they get their information elsewhere; sometimes, it may be beneficial; other times, not so much.

According to the study, 15.2 percent of 12th graders abused prescription pills in the past year, making them the second most commonly used drug behind marijuana  -- again.  Also according to the report, Vicodin use has gone down, but 8% of 12th grades still used in the past year. What's more, nearly 5% of 12th graders used OxyContin, the pill equivalent of heroin, in the past 12 months. Similar numbers report using sedatives, tranquilizers, and Adderall. Data was not available for perceived risk of opioids, but because more teens reported using these pills than heroin, they, having grown up in a culture of prescription pills, must perceive them to be less threatening.

Unfortunately, prescription pills kill more people than heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine combined.  How is this not the foremost topic of every drug-related conversation?

The study does not acknowledge a lack of good drug information or harm reduction resources. Instead, it blames "generational forgetting" for older drugs reappearing after their harms have become known and newer drugs increased in popularity.

“There may well be a generational forgetting of the dangers of ecstasy as newer cohorts of youth enter adolescence,” comments Johnston. “Because they were quite young when the original ecstasy epidemic occurred, they have had less chance to hear the warnings about the dangers of the drug than did their predecessors.”

The study recommended shrinking the time between a drug's emergence and awareness of its negative effects, but the smarter route would be to avoid the harmful effects altogether. Why not take a health-centered approach to these drugs, so that teens may learn how to use them safely, without "generational forgetfulness" kicking in once the government is cracking down on some drug, thus pushing teens towards another one?

Perhaps, if youths received honest drug education in schools, they would not be using prescription pills at rates so high that painkillers, often mixed with anti-anxiety meds and alcohol, have pushed overdose to become the leading cause of accidental death in America.

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