High school seniors smoke marijuana more than cigarettes, survey finds

A new survey of US teens found that nearly 23 percent of 12th graders used marijuana over the last month, compared with 18.7 percent who said they smoked cigarettes.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor
In this file photo Pandy Arrieta takes care of a marijuana plant in a classroom before the start of a class at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California in 2010.

US teenagers are turning away from cigarettes and alcohol in favor of marijuana according to an annual study released Wednesday by the University of Michigan.

The abuse of marijuana is at its highest level in 30  years, reports the “Monitoring the Future” survey, an authoritative snapshot of drug and alcohol use among US teenagers in grades 8, 10, and 12. 

Nearly 23 percent of 12th graders polled said they used marijuana over the last month, compared with 18.7 percent who said they smoked cigarettes.

Cigarette use is down among all three grades, dropping 60 percent during the last 15 years, according to the survey. Among 12th graders, 18.7 percent reported they smoked a cigarette during the past month, compared with 36.5 percent in 1997 – the most recent peak.

Binge drinking is also at a historic low among the combined grades surveyed, down from 41 percent five years ago to 22 percent this year. Binge drinking is defined as four drinks in one sitting for women, five for men.

But researchers speaking at the National Press Club in Washington Wednesday said that teenagers are turning to alternate tobacco products, such as hookahs, small cigars, and smokeless tobacco. Marijuana and prescription-drug use is also on the rise.

Findings among 12th graders show that 36.4 percent used marijuana in the past year while 6.6 percent used it daily, up from 31.5 and 5 percent, respectively, from five years ago.

The reason why marijuana is becoming so popular is that “the perceived risk is down” which creates “the norms against its use to weaken,” says Lloyd Johnson, the survey’s principal investigator at the University of Michigan.

And fewer "kids view smoking marijuana regularly as having a harmful affect,” says Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Corresponding to the rise in marijuana use is the increased use of synthetic marijuana, which is often sold in drug paraphernalia shops, gas stations, or online. The drugs, also known as "spice" or "K2," contain chemical compounds that produce a high similar to marijuana when smoked.

This is the first survey that tracked synthetic marijuana; 11.4 percent of 12th graders reported abusing the drug during the past year. Mr. Johnson says that typical users of synthetic marijuana are abusing other drugs.

“They’re quite a drug-experienced group that is probably looking around for a cheaper alternative to get a marijuana high,” he says.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration issued an emergency order March 1 to ban the sale of five chemicals used in synthetic marijuana, and the US House passed a bill banning their sale in early December.

Thirty-eight states also took action in banning the sale of the drugs, which he says illustrates a new trend in government getting ahead of the problem before it gets out of control, according to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy

“That’s what it takes,” Mr. Kerlikowske says.

He also warned of lobbying efforts of behalf of companies linked to the sale of synthetic and medicinal marijuana as the presidential election season kicks off next year.

The survey polled 46,773 students from 400 public and private schools across the US. The survey is in its 36th year and is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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