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Marijuana use among teens creates major concern among field leaders

December 19, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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As leaders in the addiction field announced results of the 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey on Dec.18, one main message was clear: There is much to be done about teens and marijuana use. While the study,
which encompassed responses from about 42,000 middle and high school students, showed a significant decrease in use of opiate-related drugs, it also found that the perceived risk of marijuana has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years.

Use of Vicodin decreased among all age groups studied and specifically among high school seniors, it dropped from 7.5 percent in 2012 to 5.3 percent this year. OxyContin was used by 4.7 percent of seniors in 2008, and in 2013, 3.6 percent of seniors reported that they had used the prescription medication for a nonmedical reason.

The survey, released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), reported that 39.5 percent of high school seniors view regular marijuana use as harmful, which is a significant decline from last year’s 44.1 percent. Because young people are viewing the drug as less harmful, Lloyd Johnston, PhD, Principal Investigator of the study, said there is definitely a correlation between changes in perceived risk for a drug and subsequent increases or decreases in use. “We’ve seen similar effects with cocaine and with various other drugs,” he said about the correlation, as he addressed a media briefing to announce the survey results.

“The perceived risk has become a leading indicator of problems to come,” Johnston added. “You don’t get many leading indicators in the social sciences – they’re mostly in the economic sciences – but this is one and so we take it seriously.”   

All of the marijuana use rates are up among the three groups of youth studied, and the results include:

High school seniors:

  • 6.5 percent smoke marijuana daily. In 2003, this number was 6 percent and in 1993, 2.4 percent.
  • Almost 23 percent report that they have smoked marijuana in the last month.
  • About 36 percent report that they have smoked marijuana in the past year.

High school sophomores:

  • 4 percent smoke marijuana daily.
  • 18 percent have smoked it within the past month.
  • 29.8 percent have smoked marijuana in the past year.

Eighth graders:

  • More than 12 percent claim they smoked marijuana in the past year.

“We should be extremely concerned that 12 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana,” Nora Volkow, MD, Director of NIDA, said. “The children whose experimentation leads to regular use are setting themselves up for declines in IQ and diminished ability for success in life.”

Reasons for increase in marijuana use

To Johnston, it doesn’t come as a surprise that teenagers’ perceived risk of marijuana is down. There are a number of states that have adopted medical marijuana laws and two states – Colorado and Washington – that have full legalization for recreational use. “It seems improbable that that wouldn’t have an impact on how young people see marijuana,” he said. “I’d be quite surprised if the perceived risk had been going up or was flat.”

The perception is plummeting downward rather sharply, and has been caused by the extreme media coverage on the legalization efforts. “When two states legalized marijuana, that was a message that was carried throughout the country and youngsters throughout the country were exposed to the discussion and the issues,” Johnston explained. He believes that the perceived risk has gone down simply because of the perception that marijuana can be a recreational drug like alcohol and tobacco.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), agreed with Johnston’s observations and didn’t appear to be surprised by the results showing that marijuana is getting into the hands of teenagers. He spoke about the promise that was made in medical marijuana states to the voters that said there would be regulatory schemes to prevent the marijuana from falling into the hands of young people. “In every state, that promise has clearly been broken,” he said.

In 2012, questions were added to the survey that had to do with where students were obtaining marijuana. In 2012 and 2013 combined, 34 percent of marijuana-using seniors living in states with medical marijuana laws say that one of the ways they obtain the drug is through someone else’s medical marijuana prescription.

“Alcohol gets into the hands of young people, prescription drugs—which are highly regulated and controlled—get into the hands of young people, why we would we believe the promise that marijuana wouldn’t get into the hands of young people is a bit beyond me,” Kerlikowske continued.

Combating marijuana use

Kerlikowske says a recent memorandum from the Department of Justice (DOJ) states that it is continuing its efforts to enforce marijuana laws. Regarding Colorado and Washington in particular, there are a series of measures that will be carefully monitored and the ONDCP will be assisting the DOJ in the data gathering. The data areas will include youth use, drugged driving, and money coming from the industry that could be used in involving organized crime.

“These two states are engaging in a large social experiment,” Kerlikowske said. “The information that we’re beginning to see portends that they’re going to have a very hard time.”

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