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Marijuana More Widely Used Among US Teens

December 15, 2009

Marijuana is becoming increasingly popular with teens in the US, as they smoke less cigarettes and slow down on binge drinking and the use of methamphetamines, according to a survey released Monday by White House drug expert Gil Kerlikowske.

Prescription pain pills and attention-deficit-drugs have also become a popular way to get high, according to the 35th annual “Monitoring the Future” survey of 47,097 8th, 10th and 12th grade students by the University of Michigan for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reported the Associated Press.

It is believed that teens are turning more to marijuana partly because the national debate over the medical use of marijuana can make them think the drug is somehow less dangerous, researchers said.

Teens also think prescription drugs and Ecstasy are safer, which often means more could abuse those drugs in the future, said Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy,

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 said in remarks prepared for his Monday speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Marijuana use may be lower than it was in the late 1990s, but it has been catching up. Among this year’s 12th graders, 20.6% claim to have used it within the past month, compared with 19.4% in 2008 and 18.3% in 2006.

Marijuana use among 10th graders was up to 15.9% this year from 13.8% 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.

The percentage of 8th graders who believed there to be a “great risk” in smoking marijuana occasionally dropped from 50.5% in 2004 to 48.1% in 2008 and 44.8% this year. Also, the percentage of 8th graders to saw danger in the use of Ecstasy once or twice fell among 8th graders from 42.5% in 2004 to 26% 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.

She said teens falsely assume that there is less danger in getting high on prescription drugs “because they’re endorsed by the medical community.” However, prescription narcotics like OxyContin and Vicodin are highly addictive and can act as gateways to heroin, a cheaper high, Volkow said.

The use rates of both OxyContin and Vicodin both rose among this year’s 10th graders, with 8.1% saying they had used Vicodin in the past year compared with 6.7% of the same grade in 2008. For OxyContin, the number was up to 5.1% from 3.6%.

Even though the recreational use of the attention-deficit drug Ritalin was lower than it was five years ago, the attention-deficit drug Adderall, appearing for this first time in this year’s survey, showed use rates similar to those for Ritalin at its highest, which for 12th graders was around 5%.

Alcohol is still the most widely used illicit substance among teens, with 43.5% of 12th graders reporting taking a drink in the past month. That is close to last year’s figures, but is lower than 52.7 percent in 1997. That year showed particularly high percentages of substance abuse. All three grades reported drops in binge drinking for 2004-2009.

The patterns for cigarette use have continued in the drastic drop from 10 years ago. In 1997, 19.4% of 8th  graders reported smoking within a month. That is down to 6.8% last year and 6.5% this year. The rate for 12th graders dropped from 36.5% in 1997 to 20.1% 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.

Of this year’s 12th grader, only 2.4% claimed to have ever used methamphetamine, which is down from 2.8% in 2008 and 8.2% in 1999.

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