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Pot Matters: Cannabis Use in High School Unchanged Since the Advent of Legalization

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A key annual survey has revealed that daily cannabis use among high school seniors has “changed little since 2010,” despite the advent of legalization in several states and its consideration in many others.

The most recent results of the Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey, conducted by the University of Michigan, were released on December 16 by the university and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The survey results are being touted in various ways. 

NIDA is highlighting a long term decline in illicit drug use, prescription opioid abuse, and cigarette and alcohol use among the teenagers. The University of Michigan is being a little more detailed, highlighting a decline in the use of ecstasy, heroin, synthetic marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes among U.S. teens. Another interpretation of the data calls attention to cannabis use becoming more popular than tobacco use, because for the first time “more high school seniors smoke marijuana daily than cigarettes.”

Use of cannabis in the last month by 8th graders in 2015 remained steady as 6.5 percent, same as in 2014, and down from seven percent in 2013. It has dropped in the last year among 10th graders from 16.6 percent in 2014 to 14.8 percent in 2015. Among 12th graders daily use was up slightly to 21.3 percent from 21.2 percent the year before, compared to 22.67 percent in 2013.

Despite the usage, the perception of harmfulness associated with cannabis use is falling among high school students. 

Among high school seniors, only 12.3 percent associate harmfulness with using cannabis once or twice, down from 12.5 percent the year before and 14.5 percent in 2013. With respect to smoking cannabis occasionally, the 2015 figure for harmfulness is 15.8 percent, down from 16.4 percent in 2014 and 19.5 percent in 2013. When it comes to regular cannabis use, 31.9 percent of high school seniors perceived this as harmful in 2015, down from 36.1 percent in 2014 and 39.5 percent in 2013.

Opposition to cannabis law reform has historically warned that legal reforms would send the impression that cannabis use was not harmful and that this message would contribute to increased teenage use. The importance of this recent data is that while high school students are correctly interpreting scientific research and change in societal attitudes about the harmfulness of cannabis, this is not leading to increased use of pot.

Indeed, here is where the other information reported by the survey is important. Alcohol and tobacco use among high school students continues to drop as the result of education and prevention programs, rather than the arrest of individuals who use those drugs. Clearly, education about alcohol has been successful, while it has long been recognized that alcohol prohibition was a failure.

The drop in alcohol use is part of a long-term trend. 

"The recent peak rate in annual prevalence of alcohol use was in 1997, at 61 percent for the three grades combined," Professor Lloyd Johnston, the study's principal investigator, said. "Since then, there has been a fairly steady downward march in alcohol use among adolescents. The rate has fallen by about a third, to 40 percent. More importantly, the percentage who report binge drinking has fallen by half, from 22 percent to 11 percent." 

Cigarette use is also at an all-time low.

Synthetic marijuana is described in the MTF release as shredded plant material that has been sprayed with “synthetic chemical components of marijuana, or cannabinoids.” According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Synthetic marijuana is a designer drug that does not contain marijuana but rather contains any of a variety of plants sprayed with laboratory-produced chemicals.” Use of this drug has declined among 8th, 10th and 12th graders.

NIDA remains concerned about cannabis and nicotine use by high school students, despite the stable usage figures. 

"We are heartened to see that most illicit drug use is not increasing, non-medical use of prescription opioids is decreasing, and there is improvement in alcohol and cigarette use rates," Nora D. Volkow, director of NIDA, said. "However, continued areas of concern are the high rate of daily marijuana smoking seen among high school students, because of marijuana’s potential deleterious effects on the developing brains of teenagers, and the high rates of overall tobacco products and nicotine containing e-cigarettes usage."

The overall treatment of the 2015 MTF data overlooks the most important point of all. 

Public policy is very much like a scientific theory in that it is based on assumptions about how the world, the social world, works. Marijuana prohibition is based on the assumption, in part, that the public needs to be led to believe that cannabis is a harmful drug in order to keep people from using it. Furthermore, even if the public has been misled in the past, society can’t admit this because it will cause more people—especially more high school students—to use cannabis. 

The 2015 MTF survey data is proof to the contrary. 

In other words, the supporters of prohibition are wrong once again. Cannabis can be legalized, and legalization can be supported by the public, without it causing increases in high school use.

(Photo Courtesy of CannabisRadio.com)

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