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Rising marijuana use leaves tobacco in a cloud of smoke

December 14, 2010|Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
  • Roughly 1 in 3 high school seniors reported they have smoked marijuana in the last year.
Roughly 1 in 3 high school seniors reported they have smoked marijuana in… (Tomas Bravo / Reuters )

After nearly a decade in decline, marijuana is making a strong comeback among high school students, with growing use and softening attitudes about the risk of smoking pot starting in eighth grade. For the first time since 1981, high school seniors reporting they had smoked marijuana in the last 30 days outnumbered those who said they smoked cigarettes.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse on Tuesday issued its 2010 "Monitoring the Future" survey--a yearly look at kids' drug and tobacco use patterns and attitudes. The remarkable crossover of the lines for marijuana use and tobacco use is a victory for public-health campaigns aimed at stamping out cigarette smoking among teens. But the federal office that tracks illicit drug use said it is driven by an uptick in youth marijuana use that is broad-based and likely to continue.

In 2010, 21.4% of high school seniors said they had smoked pot in the month before, while 19.2% reported they were cigarette smokers. Twelfth graders who acknowledged the daily use of marijuana reached its highest point since the early 1980s, 6.1%, and the numbers of eighth- and 10th-graders smoking pot daily (1% and 3%, respectively) also rose in 2010 over the previous year. Those students' attitudes about the risks of marijuana use have shown steady softening in recent years, suggesting to researchers that as eighth- and 10th-graders advance toward graduation, rates of pot-smoking will continue to climb.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, called the rise in daily use of marijuana particularly troubling, given that more frequent use, and by teens whose brains are still developing, has been shown to be more damaging to learning and memory than less frequent use. Daily users are also at far higher risk of developing dependency on marijuana and other drugs, she said. She said "one can only speculate at this point" about the cause of pot's reversal, which began roughly three years ago after a decade of declining use. 

The Obama administration's drug czar, R. Gil Kerlikowske, was not so reticent. Citing California's Prop. 19 and other states' consideration of medical marijuana measures, Kerliowske said that public debate has made marijuana appear less dangerous to younger Americans. "Calling marijuana smoked medicine is absolutely incorrect," Kerlikowske said in a press conference to present the findings. Young people, he said, have taken the "wrong message" from the debate. 

Attitudes toward the use of the club-drug Ecstasy also softened among eighth- and 10th-graders, as did use. Researchers called the increase an example of "generational forgetting," in which a lull in use is followed by an uptick in use by younger people who were not exposed to anti-drug messages. 

Seniors were a little less likely this year than last to report they had abused the prescription pain medication Vicodin (8% had done so in the previous year, vs. 9.7% in 2009), although illicit use of the opioid painkiller OxyContin held steady, and was up among 10th-graders. Twelfth-graders continued the nonmedical use of drugs prescribed for attention deficit disorder--about 6.5% acknowledged taking them in the last year, and roughly the same number used amphetamines.

Pot, however, outpaced all of those, with roughly 1 in 3 high school seniors reporting they have smoked marijuana in the last year.  One in four 10th-graders smoked pot in the last year.

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