Why teens need to know risks of marijuana

Teen use of pot is at its highest in 30 years, with 10th graders more likely to smoke a joint than a cigarette. With the spread of 'medical' marijuana, they perceive less risk – despite the evidence.

AP/Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board
Some 4,300 tons of raw material for making synthetic marijuana sits in a warehouse in Loxley, Ala., last November after being seized by state police.

One measure of the moral mettle of American society is the private lives of teenagers. And we’re not talking about a fascination with vampires and werewolves.

On a few key benchmarks – smoking, pregnancy, and alcohol use – today’s teens are making smarter choices. Trends show more of them avoiding those particular misadventures of adolescence.

But that’s not the case with marijuana.

Pot use is now more common among 10th-graders than cigarette smoking. By their senior year, 1 in 15 teens use marijuana daily. That’s up from 1 in 20 just five years ago, according to a new survey done for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Abuse of marijuana is at its highest level in 30 years among eighth- to 12th-graders. And it’s not just the naturally grown marijuana, which itself comes in a stronger form than the milder type used by some boomer parents during their wild-oats days.

This year’s survey decided to ask teens about their use of a synthetic marijuana known as K2, or spice. It was sold widely until last March, when the Drug Enforcement Administration declared a few chemicals in this synthetic pot to be Schedule I drugs. The FDA banned the chemicals for a year, while Congress now weighs a permanent ban.

To the surprise of researchers, nearly 1 in 9 high school seniors said they had used the synthetic pot over the past year. “K2 and spice are dangerous drugs that can cause serious harm,” warns Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy. “We will continue to work with the public health and safety community to respond to this emerging threat, but in the meantime, parents must take action.”

Parents play a pivotal role not only in effectively communicating with their children about their behavior but in telling them about the dangers of pot – in its effect on driving, mental health, and in sexual consequences. (Research results have tied regular marijuana use to serious mental health problems, especially for youth, while the British Lung Foundation reports that smoking three to four joints is the equivalent of smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes.)

The survey found that a teen’s perceived risk of marijuana has fallen. One reason is that 16 states now allow the sale of “medical” marijuana, which is widely consumed for only recreational use. The massive resale of such pot across state borders forced the Justice Department to start enforcing the federal ban on marijuana production and sale this year.

Another reason teens don’t know about pot’s risk is cutbacks in prevention programs. Parents need such programs to help back up their efforts to influence their teens. Public education programs about the risks of smoking, alcohol, and teen pregnancy have helped to reduce those problems among teens.

Cigarette and alcohol use, for example, is at the lowest point since the survey of teens began in 1975 (although the decline in smoking rates is slowing).

And the National Center for Health Statistics reported in November that the teen pregnancy rate had fallen 9 percent from 2009 to 2010 – the largest single-year drop since 1946-47 and the lowest level ever reported. Much of that drop is attributed to sex-education and abstinence programs.

When the Food and Drug Administration still regards marijuana as a dangerous substance, calling it a medicine isn’t helping teens or their parents. Government needs to send a clear, loud message about marijuana’s dangers.

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