As public attitudes toward marijuana change and more states legalize the medical or recreational use of marijuana – there’s a growing perception among high school seniors that regular use of marijuana is not harmful.
In an annual survey over 41,000 students by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, over 60% of 12th graders viewed regular marijuana use as not harmful, up from last year’s rate of 56%, and considerably higher than rates from the last two decades.
Rates of marijuana use have also shown significant changes, with 6.5% percent of seniors smoking marijuana daily, compared to 6% in 2003 and 2.4% in 1993.
“This is not just an issue of increased daily use,” said National Institute of Health Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow, MD. “It is important to remember that over the past two decades, levels of THC — the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — have gone up a great deal, from 3.75 percent in 1995 to an average of 15 percent in today’s marijuana cigarettes. Daily use today can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago.”
Nearly 23% of seniors say they smoked marijuana in the month prior to the survey, and just over 36% said they smoked it during the past year.
For the first time, this year’s survey also asked students where they got marijuana. Over a third of the seniors (34%) living in states where medical marijuana is legal said that one of the ways they obtained the drug is through someone else’s medical marijuana prescription. Only 6% said they got it with their own prescription.
“A new marijuana industry is forming in front of our eyes, and make no mistake about it: they are delighted their customers – today’s youth – consider their product safe,” said former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM), a group that favors the health-based use marijuana but opposes legalization.
“The rise of legalization and medical marijuana has sent a message to young people that marijuana use is harmless and non-addictive, contrary to science supported by the American Medical Association, National Institutes of Health, and every other major scientific body that has examined the issue.”
Among 10th graders, the survey found that nearly 30% had used marijuana in the past year. Over 12% of the 8th graders they used marijuana in the past year.
“We should be extremely concerned that 12% of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana,” Volkow added. “The children whose experimentation leads to regular use are setting themselves up for declines in IQ and diminished ability for success in life.”
The survey found mixed news regarding the abuse of prescription painkillers. Abuse of the pain reliever Vicodin has decreased among all grades; among high school seniors, it dropped from 7.5% in 2012 to 5.3% in 2013. OxyContin, another pain reliever, also showed a long-term drop in use among 12th graders, from 4.7% in 2008 to 3.6% in 2013.
Although use of Vicodin has declined, so has perception of harm among teens. In 2013, the perceived risk of harm from using Vicodin occasionally declined in 8th graders, from 29.4% to 26.2% and in 10th graders, from 40.3% to 36% in 2013.
“This could indicate that use could begin to rise again in future years,” the report said.