After nearly a decade in decline, marijuana is making a strong comeback among teens, with more high school seniors reporting that they had recently smoked pot than cigarettes, according to a government survey issued Tuesday.
This year, 21.4% of high school seniors said they had used marijuana in the last 30 days, while 19.2% reported smoking cigarettes in the same time period, according to the annual "Monitoring the Future" survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It was the first time since 1981 that pot surpassed tobacco in that age group.
The remarkable crossover 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 was driven by an uptick in youth marijuana use that is broad-based and likely to continue, with even eighth-graders reporting softer attitudes about the risk of smoking pot.
The Obama administration's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, blamed state medical marijuana measures like California's Proposition 19 for making pot seem less dangerous to younger Americans.
"Calling marijuana 'smoked medicine' is absolutely incorrect," Kerlikowske said at a news conference in Washington to present the findings. Young people, he said, have taken the "wrong message" from the debate.
In the survey, the proportion of 12th-graders who acknowledged daily use of marijuana reached 6.1% — the highest point since the early 1980s — and the numbers of eighth- and 10th-graders smoking pot daily also climbed, to 1% and 3%, respectively. As these younger students advance toward graduation, rates of pot-smoking will continue to climb, researchers said.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, called the rise in daily marijuana use particularly troubling given that frequent use has been shown to be more damaging to learning and memory than occasional use — especially in teenagers, whose brains are still developing. Daily smokers are also at far higher risk of developing dependency on marijuana and other drugs, she said.
Attitudes toward the club drug Ecstasy also softened among eighth- and 10th-graders, and use increased. Researchers called the increase an example of "generational forgetting," in which a lull in use is followed by an uptick among younger people who were not exposed to anti-drug messages.
Among high school seniors, 8% said they had abused the prescription pain medication Vicodin in the previous year, down from 9.7% in 2009. Illicit use of the opioid painkiller OxyContin held steady in that group and was up among 10th-graders. Twelfth-graders continued to report 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 seniors — and 1 in 4 10th-graders — reporting that they had smoked marijuana in the last year.