Marijuana consumption in American teens is on the rise, but it is unclear who – if anyone – is to blame.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted an anonymous survey of 46,000 students aged 13 to 18 and found that the percent of 12th grade students who use pot daily is now at 6.1%, up from last year’s 5.2%. For 10th graders, that number went from 1.2% in 2009 to 3.3% this year. This marks the first time since 1981 that high school seniors report using marijuana more often than cigarettes.
Staunch opponents of legalization and medicalization have declared this upward trend to be a direct result of Prop 19, which was defeated by a slim margin last month with 53% of Californians voting No and 46% voting Yes. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the campaign sent a “terrible message.”
“We [as a nation] continued a talk about legalization of marijuana as if it’s some benign substance. When I meet with high school students all over this country, they tell me, ‘We’re getting the wrong message from adults,” he said in an interview last Tuesday.
Yet citing Prop 19 as the root of the increased marijuana use starts to look like quite the long shot when contrasted with real research.
15 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and 13 states have decriminalized it for personal purposes. In these states, marijuana-use rates escalate and drop at roughly the same rates as the rest of the country, as “consistently demonstrated by research, including a 1999 report commissioned by the very agency Kerlikowske works for,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Meanwhile, international studies, showing rates of illegal drug use in America to be the same or higher than those in Europe – despite harsher legal repercussions in the US – have concluded that stringency of drug laws has little effect on actual drug use. If more lenient laws on pot do not lead to increased use, it seems highly unlikely that Prop 19 would have this effect.
Notably, teen marijuana use today is nowhere near its peak in 1979. At that time, there was no legalization campaign, and still 37% of high school seniors reported using pot within the last month – compared to just 21% in 2010.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and one of the nation’s most respected critics on federal drug control policies, made another point. Rather than testifying to what Kerlikowske seems to be referencing as the ‘social danger’ of efforts to legalize pot, he said, the apparent increase in marijuana use “suggests that arresting 750,000 Americans each year for marijuana possession is a costly and inefficient deterrent.”
“The evidence on marijuana use suggests that it goes up and down in cycles like other fads,” said Nadelmann, rejecting the idea that the Prop 19 has inadvertently caused more teenagers to adopt pot.
It seems that Kerlikowske and his campaign are eager to wield any research against the proponents of legalization, but this survey may not have been a good pick. Already, Prop 19 proponents like Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, are handing the blame back to Kerlikowske himself, using the rise in marijuana use as an example of the government’s failed drug policies.
“Even though the United States made almost 860,000 arrests for marijuana last year, including 760,000 arrests for mere possession, teen marijuana use is on the rise,” Piper says. Meanwhile, he notes, “Policymakers haven’t criminalized tobacco or made mass arrests of tobacco users, yet tobacco use remains far below its 1996 peak.”
Whether the rise in teenagers’ use of pot is, as Nadelmann suggested, merely the ebb and flow of drug trends from year to year or, more gravely, the result of the government’s blundering drug control policies described by Piper, one thing can be drawn from the facts at hand: the blame does not belong with Prop 19 or its advocates.
“Opponents of any change in America’s failed drug policies always throw out the myth that talking about reform sends a dangerous message,” Piper says. “The evidence says otherwise.”