An annual study (PDF) of U.S. teens’ drug-using habits, published Wednesday by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, found that the number of teens who say they’ve recently used marjuana has exploded since 2008: so many, in fact, that they now outnumber teens who’ve recently smoked cigarettes.
While the Partnership’s report, published May 2, does not specifically highlight this startling fact, it does place the number of high school students who’ve smoked marijuana in the last month at 27 percent, which represents a whopping 42 percent increase since 2008.
That’s in contrast with an analysis conducted by the Center for Disease Control, which studied 10 years of reporting from the National Youth Tobacco Survey and found in 2009 that teens who’ve reported smoking cigarettes in the last month had hit an all-time low of 17.2 percent, down from 28 percent in 2000.
The Partnership’s report adds that almost half of American teens (47 percent) have used marijuana at least once, which represents a 21 percent increase over the 2008 study. The CDC, on the other hand, noted that in 2009, 30 percent of high school students reported having experimented with cigarette smoking at least once, down from 39 percent in 2000, while about 24 percent had used a tobacco product (including chewing tobacco) recently, down from 34.5 percent.
An additional 73 percent of teens said they have friends who use marijuana regularly with few observable side effects, which the Partnership warns is a sign that marijuana use is becoming “normalized.” Still, they noted that approximately half of teens said they still believe there’s “great risk” to marijuana use, with most saying they did not want to upset their parents or put their friends in danger. That number, the Partnership noted, was actually down by 10 percent since 2005.
A bit of nuance, however: there are still more teens who regularly smoke cigarettes than marijuana. However, teens who’ve smoked marijuana at least once in their lives, or once within the last month, now push greater numbers than those same metrics for teen cigarette smokers. Overall, the Partnership said that approximately 4.3 million high school students have used marijuana recently, whereas the CDC estimated in 2012 (PDF) that 3.6 million have tried a tobacco product at least once.
While the number of teens who identify as heavy marijuana smokers has also skyrocketed, up 80 percent from 2008’s study to an all-time-high of 9 percent overall, that figure is still dwarfed by regular tobacco users. One in four high school seniors — roughly 25 percent — are regular cigarette smokers, the CDC said.
That may be at least in-part due to the highly addictive nature of tobacco: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) noted in a 2012 surgeon general’s report (PDF) that 88 percent of daily cigarette smokers first use the drug before the age of 18, which is actually up from 80 percent in the CDC’s 2009 report. The HHS report added that smoking rates declined significantly in the 90s due to public policies that incorporate “educational, clinical, regulatory, economic, and social initiatives” to help mitigate smoking.
Marijuana has not been shown to be nearly as addictive as tobacco, which was judged by the health journal Lancet as being approximate in total harm to cocaine. That same study judged alcohol, the most commonly abused drug, as being the worst overall for society at-large, placing marijuana in the 8th spot, below clinical amphetamine but above the club drug GHB.
The Partnership’s study, meanwhile, also claims that teens who reported marijuana use are “nearly twice as likely as less frequent smokers to have used pain relievers and cocaine/crack to get high in the past year. They are also nearly 20 times more likely than non-smokers to have used Ecstasy and 16 times more likely to have used meth in the past 12 months.” It adds: “These data show that marijuana use is directly associated with increased use of other dangerous substances, including alcohol and cigarettes.”
While that data would seem to show some correlation in various substances of abuse, the idea that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to other more destructive substances was determined by researchers at the University of New Hampshire in 2010 to be little more than half-baked. They found that whether teens use hard drugs has more to do with stress factors in everyday life, such as unemployment, than their experiences with marijuana.
“Employment in young adulthood can protect people by ‘closing’ the marijuana gateway, so over-criminalizing youth marijuana use might create more serious problems if it interferes with later employment opportunities,” one of the study’s authors said in a press release.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that teen unemployement was hovering around 25 percent, down from 27 percent in 2009 — its highest rate since the Great Depression, and roughly 10 percent higher than the teen unemployment rate in the years leading up to the near economic collapse of 2008.
Jag Davies, publications manager with The Drug Policy Alliance, said in an advisory that the data should lead policy makers to begin evolving the U.S. approach to marijuana and develop “a comprehensive strategy for dealing with drug abuse in the 21st century.”
“It’s time to step back and ask ourselves what’s the best way to solve the problem we’re trying to solve—how to reduce drug abuse and addiction—and use the best available evidence to guide us,” he said. “And, ultimately, it’s time to bring marijuana out of the shadows and under the rule of law. The evidence shows that the most effective way to reduce teen marijuana use would be to regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol, with age limits, licensing controls, and other regulatory restrictions.”
Photo: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com.