Study: Why Teen Pot Smoking Could be a Good Thing (And What We Can Learn From Teens Who Choose Weed Over Beer)

Study: Why Teen Pot Smoking Could be a Good Thing (And What We Can Learn From Teens Who Choose Weed Over Beer)
Teens are smoking more weed, while cutting down on alcohol and cigarettes.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) released the results of its Monitoring the Future Survey of teen drug use, and guess what: Teens are using cigarettes and alcohol less, but they are smoking more marijuana. What’s more, they’re smoking more weed because they do not perceive it to be as harmful as did teens in the past. Teens’ level of “associated risk” with marijuana use has gone done over time, and marijuana is, indeed, less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes: This could be an argument for more honest drug education in schools.

Associated risk is the danger or harm believed to be a consequence of drug use.  If associated risk for a particular substance goes up,  more people report that they consider using that drug to be a threat. In other words, as associated risk goes down, more people are saying the drug in question is not that bad. According to the NIDA study, a decline in marijuana’s associated risk contributed to teens smoking more pot, while drinking less alcohol and smoking fewer cigarrettes. Thus, many teens actually showed good judgement, by using available information to determine the danger posed by particular substances, and making smart decisions accordingly.

According to the study, about 25% of teens surveyed said they tried marijuana at least once in 2011, a statistically significant rise of about 4% since 2007. Additionally, 6.6% of 12th graders  also admitted to smoking weed daily.

Frequent marijuana use is the highest it has been since 1981, but cigarette and alcohol use also reached historic lows.  11.7 percent of U.S. teens reported having smoked a cigarette in the last 30 days, compared to 12.8 percent in 2010. According to the report, a twenty-year gradual decline in  alcohol use continued into 2011, and the decrease in that year alone was also significant:

“Over the past 20 years, from 1991 to 2011, the proportion of 8th graders reporting any use of alcohol in the prior 30 days has fallen by about half (from 25% to 13%), among 10th graders by more than one third (from 43% to 27%), and among 12th graders by about one fourth (from 54% to 40%).”

These findings are important, as alcohol and cigarettes are more deadly and addictive than pot. The report acknowledged that decreases in associated risk may play a factor in the increases in marijuana use. The decline in teens’ perception of marijuana’s harmfulness could be linked to public discussion of  medical marijuana dispensaries and the ongoing debate about the medical benefits of marijuana. Thus, the study’s own data proves what NIDA and other drug war institutions incessantly deny: Knowledge — even if it shows the benefits of a drug — matters. Give young people accurate information, and they will use it to make better decisions that result in less harm to themselves, because teens, like everybody else, do not actually want to get hurt or become addicts.

This is the importance of harm reduction education. Understanding the varying addictive nature and likelihood of overdose or impurity of different drugs will help teens to make smarter decisions when they begin to experiment. Giving students honest information about drugs, like appropriate dosage, and providing information about safe injection (or other methods of use),  does not necessarily insure that they will use drugs. It does, however, increase the odds that they will use drugs safely, and reduce the likelihood of experiencing the harms associated with drugs. But to win the trust of young people so that they take this information seriously, educators must also be honest about the harm or risk associated with different drugs, and it’s not one size fits all.

Pot has never killed anyone, and medical marijuana shows benefits for people living with glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and PTSD.  And while pot may be more available in states where it is legal for medical reasons, in recent years, pot’s associated risk has decreased more substantially than its availability has risen.

Recent data released by the Institute for the Study of Labor  in Bonn, Germany,  a research center for science, politics, and business, showed no evidence that the availability of medical marijuana influenced teens’ use. What the study did find is that marijuana use is higher among adults  in states where voters supported the legislation, and that the increase in use is actually  beneficial: Researchers concluded that smoking more and drinking less contributed to a 9% decrease in traffic fatalities.

And still, rather than accept the reality that teens always have, and always will, experiment with drugs, NIDA  is calling its new marijuana statistics “depressing.” NIDA is, in effect, advocating for prohibition and the limitation of information to explain only the most negative effects of drugs, even though some are more dangerous, or better for you, than others, rather than providing education that helps teens understand their health options, and ways of reducing the harm of drugs.

Kristen Gwynne is a freelance reporter based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Salon and RollingStone.com.