Pot more prevalent than cigarettes among American teens

Study shows tobacco consumption continues to decline, while marijuana use is reported by quarter of young people

Marijuana smoking remains popular across the U.S., as many states vote to decriminalize the drug.
Richard M Hackett/AP

For Chris Hopkins, 16, the idea of smoking a joint is no big thing.

“Everyone at my school smokes marijuana,” said the junior at Manalapan High School in northern New Jersey. He explained further: “I guess because you get a feeling from it. Tobacco doesn’t really do anything for you. You just stand out in the cold every two hours.”

Hopkins was himself standing out in the cold — huddled with friends who’d skipped school with him to go to the annual Z100 Jingle Ball preshow at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.

He and his peers said they’re not surprised by some of the key findings released on Wednesday in the new Monitoring the Future Survey, an annual report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that tracks illicit consumption among American students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades. The figures show that smoking tobacco is going out of style among young Americans, in marked contrast to smoking marijuana.

According to the survey, cigarette smoking continues to drop. Just 16 percent of high school seniors report smoking within the past month, which is the lowest rate since the survey began in 1975. Marijuana use, on the other hand, was 23 percent for the same group. That number is roughly the same as for last year, but it has gone up from 19.4 percent in 2008.

“When people ask, ‘Do you smoke?’ they’re not talking about cigarettes. They’re talking about weed,” said Hopkins’ friend Victoria, 16, who declined to give her last name.

For this year's finding Monitoring the Future survey, 44,000 students from 389 secondary schools, both public and private, filled out the questionnaires at their schools. The survey was conducted by the University of Michigan.

In general, this year’s results are “encouraging,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Dr. Nora Volkow. Besides the continued trend of decreased alcohol and tobacco use, she cited a drop in the abuse of painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin. Also trending downward is the use of newer drugs like synthetic marijuana (also called K2 or Spice), as well as bath salts and salvia. Prescription drug abuse and use of inhalants also continued a long-term decline.

Just 16 percent of high school seniors report smoking cigarettes within the last month, which is the lowest rate since the survey began in 1975. Marijuana use, on the other hand, was 23 percent for the same group.

On the “worrisome” side, said Volkow, is the continued high rate of marijuana use, alongside a decrease in perception of its negative effects.

“Regular (daily) use of marijuana is 6.5 percent among 12th graders and 5.4 percent among 10th graders,” Volkow said. “These are very high numbers considering these (include only) kids at school, so we are not entering into these numbers kids who’ve dropped out.”

Volkow said this is a problem particularly because teen brains are still developing.

"We know use of marijuana interferes with learning and memory," she said, adding that it could translate into poor academic achievement.

A study by Northwestern University Medicine released earlier this week found that teens who smoked marijuana daily for three years showed abnormal brain structures associated with poor memory and even schizophrenia.

Another area of concern, according to NIDA’s report, is an increase in teen abuse of prescription stimulants like Adderall, often used to increase test-taking performance. The number of seniors who indicated such stimulant abuse within the past year rose from 6.8 percent in 2008 to about 8.7 percent in 2013.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, highlighted the marijuana trends as the most disappointing results.

“Making it worse, more teens are now smoking marijuana than cigarettes,” he said. “For some to say it is less dangerous than other substances is a ridiculous statement.”

Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, disagreed.

“Marijuana is exceptionally less harmful than alcohol or tobacco,” he said. “Overall, this data should not be viewed as some sort of doomsday scenario, especially as we’re seeing a trend of people of all ages using marijuana more and alcohol and tobacco less. That’s a net positive for society.”

Shortly after the Monitoring the Future results were released, the Marijuana Policy Project issued a statement calling on NIDA to investigate whether marijuana regulation — rather than prohibition — could cause similar decreases in teen use, as seen already with alcohol and tobacco. 

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