What the stats on teens and marijuana don’t show

The latest numbers are in and it’s clear: For the first time since 1981, fewer high school seniors report having used cigarettes in the past month than marijuana. This is a victory for U.S. tobacco policy, which has used education, prevention and regulation to massively reduce cigarette smoking; it’s also an embarrassment for marijuana prohibition, which has wasted enormous amounts of taxpayer money arresting millions of citizens with very little to show for it except construction of new prisons and shocking racial disparities.

Yet instead of asking what can we learn from historically low tobacco use rates that might improve U.S. marijuana policy, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske points a finger at state medical marijuana laws, the national debate on Proposition 19,and, well, anything but the failed, counterproductive marijuana policies of the last 40 years. The Times’ editorial board was right to call him to task for going too far (“One toke over the line,” Dec. 16).

According to the 2010 Monitoring the Future survey, teen marijuana use has risen for all prevalence periods (lifetime, past year, past 30 days and daily in the past 30 days). Daily marijuana use among high school seniors is now at 6.1%, the highest rate since the early 1980s. Overall, 21.4% of high school seniors used marijuana at least once last month, an increase of 0.8% over the past year.


“Though this upward shift is not yet very large, its duration and pervasiveness leave no doubt in our minds that it is real,” said Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study. In contrast, teen tobacco use remains at record lows (although cuts to prevention efforts threaten that) and teen binge drinking is falling.

Kerlikowske attributes the increase in teen marijuana use to the growing recognition that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and other drugs, and that teenagers are starting to think marijuana is medicine.

“We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine,” he told ABC News Radio. “So it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana.”

In a news release, he went further, saying, “Mixed messages about drug legalization, particularly marijuana, may be to blame.” Of course tobacco and alcohol are legal, and widely used and promoted, but teen misuse of those drugs is decreasing or holding steady.

Opponents of any change in America’s failed drug policies always throw out the myth that talking about reform sends a dangerous message to teens. The evidence says otherwise. Fifteen states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized marijuana for medical use, and 13 states have decriminalized marijuana for personal use. Research, including a 1999 Institute of Medicine report commissioned by the very agency Kerlikowske works for, has consistently demonstrated that marijuana-use rates in those states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states. Moreover, studies around the world have found that the relative harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates of illegal drug use in the United States are the same as or higher than those in Europe, despite our more punitive policies.

In terms of social experiments, it would be hard to find a better one than the drastically different policy approaches toward marijuana and tobacco. Marijuana is illegal and thus unregulated and untaxed, with profits from sales going to organized crime. Tobacco is legal and thus regulated and taxed, with part of the profits from sales going to treatment, prevention and education.

Even though the United States made almost 860,000 arrests for marijuana last year, including 760,000 arrests for mere possession, teen marijuana use is on the rise. Policymakers haven’t criminalized tobacco or made mass arrests of tobacco users, yet tobacco use remains far below its 1996 peak. The two very different drug policies have two very different results. It is long past time to make marijuana legal so it can be controlled, regulated and taxed as part of an effective, health-based drug policy.

Bill Piper is director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.