More teens are smoking pot

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While use of drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine has declined among U.S. teens, more adolescents are smoking marijuana, according to the results of an annual survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed some 47,000 eighth-graders, high school sophomores and high school seniors, and found that across all three groups, marijuana use was up. In the 2009 study, 11.8% of eighth-graders reported smoking pot, compared with 10.9% the year before, 26.7% of tenth-graders said they smoked pot, compared with 23.9% in 2008, and 32.8% of 12th-graders, compared with 32.4% the previous year.

Public health officials, including White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, attribute the uptick in marijuana use to less education about the dangers of smoking pot, and say that the alarming trend underscores the need for parents and authorities to increase anti-drug efforts. Survey results show that adolescents’ perceptions of the danger of using marijuana have changed significantly over the years—in 2004, 50.5% of eighth grade students believed occasionally smoking pot posed “great risk” to their health; 44.8% of eighth-graders felt that way this year.

Even as kids are smoking more pot, they seem to be smoking slightly fewer cigarettes. According to the 2009 study results, 11.2% of high school seniors said they smoked cigarettes every day, down from 11.4% in 2008. Researchers attribute the slight drop in smoking rates to the fact that fewer kids are lighting up in the first place. Thirteen years ago, 49% of eight graders said they’d tried smoking; this year, just 20% reported trying cigarettes.

While public health experts are pleased with the decline in smoking, advocates for marijuana legalization point to both the uptick in pot smoking and the success of anti-tobacco efforts targeted at teens as evidence that the time has come for a new approach to marijuana regulation. As Bruce Mirkin, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, told the Associated Press:

“Clearly, regulation of tobacco products has worked to curb access by teens, and it’s time to apply those same sensible policies to marijuana.”

Yet as teens’ attitudes about cigarettes and marijuana have changed, so too has their access to—and abuse of—prescription drugs. Nearly 5% of 12th graders reported using OxyContin for non-medical reasons this year, a slightly higher proportion than last year, and nearly 10% of high school seniors reported using the painkiller Vicodin for non-medical reasons as well, a figure that is consistent with rates from 2008 and suggests that the problem continues, researchers say. Meanwhile, teen use of cocaine and methamphetamine had dropped somewhat: 3.4% of 12th graders reported using cocaine in 2009, down from 4.4% in 2008.

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