Smoking marijuana is becoming even more popular among U.S. teens, and they have cut down on smoking cigarettes, binge drinking and using methamphetamines, according to a federal survey released earlier this month.
More teens also are getting high on prescription pain pills and attention-deficit drugs, according to eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed by the University of Michigan for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The increase of teens smoking pot is partly because the national debate over medical use of marijuana can make the drugs seem safer to teenagers, researchers said. In addition to marijuana, fewer teens also view prescription drugs and Ecstasy as dangerous, which often means more could use them in the future, said White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske.
The “continued erosion in youth attitudes and behavior toward substance abuse should give pause to all parents and policy-makers,” Kerlikowske said.
“These latest data confirm that we must redouble our efforts to implement a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to preventing and treating drug use,” Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in remarks prepared for his Monday speech at the National Press Club in Washington.
Marijuana use, while well off peak levels of the late 1990s, has edged up. According to the study of 47,097 students, among 12th-graders, 20.6 percent said they used it within the past month, compared with 19.4 percent in 2008 and 18.3 percent in 2006. Among 10th-graders, pot use in the past month rose to 15.9 percent this year from 13.8 percent in 2008.
In the past year, the share of eighth-graders who smoked pot was 11.8 percent, compared with 10.9 percent in 2008. Tenth-graders’ use was 26.7 percent this year and 23.9 percent in 2008. The percentage of 12th-graders was 32.8 percent compared with 32.4 percent in 2008.
“The upward trending of the past two or three years stands in stark contrast to the steady decline that preceded it for nearly a decade,” said Lloyd Johnston, who has directed the annual survey since it started in 1975.
A group backing legalization of marijuana said the figures show the futility of trying to ban pot, rather than regulate its use.
“Clearly, regulation of tobacco products has worked to curb access by teens, and it’s time to apply those same sensible policies to marijuana,” said Bruce Mirkin, spokesman for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.
Marijuana’s growing popularity is tied to how risky teens think it is.
The percentage of eighth-graders who saw a “great risk” in occasionally smoking marijuana fell from 50.5 percent in 2004 to 48.1 percent in 2008 and 44.8 percent this year. The perceived danger of using Ecstasy once or twice fell among eighth-graders, from 42.5 percent in 2004 to 26 percent in 2009.
“When the perception of the danger goes down, in the following years you see an increase in use,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow.
Volkow said teens falsely reason it’s less dangerous to get high on prescription drugs “because they’re endorsed by the medical community.” But she said prescription narcotics like OxyContin and Vicodin are highly addictive and can act as gateways to heroin, a cheaper high.
Use of both prescription narcotics rose among this year’s 10th-graders, with 8.1 percent saying they had used Vicodin in the past year compared with 6.7 percent in 2008. For OxyContin, the figure rose to 5.1 percent from 3.6 percent.
Recreational use of the attention-deficit drug Ritalin was lower than five years ago. But the attention-deficit drug Adderall had figures similar to those for Ritalin at its peak, which for 12th-graders was around 5 percent.
By all measures, alcohol remained the most widely used illicit substance among teens, with 43.5 percent of 12th-graders reporting taking a drink in the past month. That’s a little change from the same period last year, but down from 52.7 percent in 1997 -- a year that showed high percentages of substance abuse. All three grades reported drops in binge drinking from 2004 to 2009.
Cigarette use continued its dramatic drop from a decade ago. In 1997, 19.4 percent of eighth-graders reported smoking within a month. That fell to 6.8 percent last year and 6.5 percent this year. The rate for 12th-graders dropped from 36.5 percent in 1997 to 20.1 percent this year.
“There’s not going to be much further improvement unless policies change,” such as higher taxes to discourage kids on a budget and further limits on public smoking, Johnston said.
Only 2.4 percent of this year’s 12th-graders said they’d ever used methamphetamine, down from 2.8 percent in 2008 and 8.2 percent in 1999.