The big news from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health is that teens are smoking less pot following legalization. But what else does it reveal about the extent of marijuana use in the United States? Part 1 on this column compared the number of marijuana users with those of other illegal drugs and addressed the significance of data revealing that over 90 percent of marijuana users are adults.
One of the pillars of support for prohibition is survey data on the perception of great risk of harm associated with substance use and the perceived availability of substances.
The argument goes like this: When people, especially young people, perceive great risk associated with using a drug, they are less likely to use it. Historically, when risk perception increases usage prevalence decreases. Therefore, it is important to make the public, especially young people, believe illicit drugs, and especially marijuana, are harmful.
Regardless of the facts, society must promote the perception of harm to reduce use.
Perception is one thing, knowledge is something else.
Knowledge of harm is an objective criterion; it depends on facts and science.
Perception, on the other hand, is subjective; it depends on persuasion and in more harsh terms, propaganda. The argument that risk perception should be a priority when it comes to drug policy is basically an argument that having made a claim that marijuana is dangerous, society can’t change that claim, even if it was wrong to some degree, because admitting the original claim was wrong will increase marijuana use, especially among young people.
Consequently, an argument against legalization is that it lowers risk perception by young people.
The evidence, though, is that teenage marijuana use has not increased since legalization has been enacted in several states and enjoys substantial public support. Overall, risk perception associated with smoking marijuana once a month has fallen from 29.1 percent in 2015 to 27.7 percent in 2016, continuing a downward trend over the last several years.
Recent survey data indicates that risk perception decreases with age among younger people.
The perception that smoking marijuana once a month produces a great risk of harm decreases from 27.1 percent for those aged 12 to 17, to 15.2 percent for those 18 to 25. About 30 percent of people aged 26 and older perceive great risk with such marijuana use.
How easy is to get marijuana and other drugs?
Here, the survey data asks about perceived availability, whether the drug is fairly or very easy to obtain. Overall, for all those 12 and older, 59.1 percent of Americans report that marijuana is fairly or very easy to obtain. This is a devastating critique on the effectiveness of prohibition.
Even worse, with respect to prohibition, 44.7 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 report that the drug is easy to obtain. Those 18 to 25 report the greatest level of availability, 74 percent. Compared to other drugs, in this age group (18 to 25) cocaine is easy to get for 23.5 percent, heroin is easy to get for 15.9 percent and LSD is easy to get for 19.5 percent of them.
How does the perceived risk associated with marijuana use compare with tobacco and alcohol?
Among those 12 and older, 72.8 percent report a perception of great harm associated with smoking one of more packs of cigarettes a day. In the same age group, 44.4 percent report great risk in having five or more drinks of alcohol once or twice a week. (Compared with 34 percent reporting great risk in smoking marijuana once or twice a week.)
The survey takes a close look at first-time users of drugs, referred to as past year initiates. The perception of great harm with using marijuana once a month is reported by only 5.5 percent of first time users 12 and over, and 88 percent of these report that marijuana is easy to get.
The number of annual marijuana users has increased by 47 percent from 2002 to 2016, from 25.7 million to 37.6 million. This is an increase from 11 percent of those aged 12 and older to 13.9 percent of this age group.
During this same period the prevalence of heroin use has doubled, from 0.2 percent to 0.4 percent, but in population figures from 404,000 to 948,000. Interestingly, the prevalence of annual cocaine use fluctuated around 2.5 percent of the population from 2002 to 2007, dropped to 1.5 percent in 2011, and has been on the increase again in recent years in 2016. What presents a greater threat to public health—marijuana use or the use of cocaine and heroin?