American teenagers are now more likely to light up a joint than smoke a cigarette, new survey data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show, and one in nine high school seniors has tried synthetic marijuana.
The Monitoring the Future Survey for 2011, released Wednesday, found that while the rate at which 8th, 10th, and 12th graders smoke cigarettes daily or even in a month is at a historical low, marijuana use has been rising for the past five years.
“It surprised all of us. We think it’s unnerving,” said Dr. Wilson Compton, the director of the division of epidemiology, services, and prevention research at NIDA, in Bethesda, Md.
The data come from an annual survey of a nationally representative set of 8th graders and high school sophomores and seniors. It has been conducted by the University of Michigan since 1975, with 8th and 10th graders added in 1991. This year’s survey involved 46,773 students at 400 public and private schools.
The survey found that 36.4 percent of seniors reported smoking pot in the last year, and almost 7 percent said they used it every day, compared with 31.5 and 5 percent, respectively, five years ago. To get a better understanding of why marijuana use has increased, NIDA has just funded several small projects exploring the issue.
The survey data, however, hint at a possible answer: The shift corresponded with a decline in students’ perception of marijuana as being dangerous or risky. Only 22.7 percent of high school seniors saw great risk in smoking marijuana occasionally, compared to 25.9 percent five years ago. For 8th graders, the percentage who perceived risk in marijuana use was 48.9 percent five years ago, compared with 43.4 percent this year.
Meanwhile, the downshift in tobacco use can be attributed to antismoking campaigns as well as increases in the price of cigarettes, Dr. Compton said.
“Youth are particularly vulnerable to the price,” he said. “If you’re not addicted yet, the price matters. Once you’re addicted, ... you’ll complain. You’ll still do it.”
Earlier this year, the group Tobacco-Free Kids reported the average price of a pack of cigarettes nationwide rose to $5.29. And last year, the price of a pack of cigarettes in New York City rose to about $11 because of additional taxes added by the state legislature.
Despite the decreases in cigarette and alcohol use, too many students are still using them, Dr. Compton said. The survey found that 2.4 percent of 8th graders, 5.5 percent of 10th graders, and 10.3 percent of 12th graders said they smoke every day, and 18.7 percent of 12th graders reported smoking within the last month, compared to a recent peak of 36.5 percent in 1997 and 21.6 percent five years ago. Only 6.1 percent of 8th-graders reported current smoking, compared to a recent peak of 21 percent in 1996 and 8.7 percent five years ago.
Students reported drinking alcohol less—63.5 percent of 12th graders said they’d had alcohol in the last year compared to 74.8 percent in 1997.
“The rates are still way too high,” said Dr. Compton.
Synthetic, Prescription Drug Use Measured
This year’s survey was the first in which high school seniors were asked whether they had used synthetic marijuana, which includes the brands K2 and Spice. One in nine said they had used it in the past year.
Although the sale of synthetic marijuana is banned in many states, and earlier this year the federal Drug Enforcement Administration issued an emergency ban on five chemicals used in the product, the substance may still be available online. This month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban such drugs, which can simulate the effects of marijuana.
“We were quite surprised by how common this is,” Dr. Compton said of use of the synthetic drug.
The teenagers using synthetic marijuana “are very likely users of multiple other substances and ... more likely to be willing to experiment with the newest fad,” he said. The drug has been blamed for several deaths and many poisonings.
Parents have been called upon to step in regarding marijuana, synthetic or otherwise.
“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,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the White House’s director of national drug control policy, in a statement. “Parents are the most powerful force in the lives of young people and we ask that all of them talk to their teens today about the serious consequences of using marijuana, K2, or spice.”
Monitoring the Future also asked students about prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which rank just behind pot as the illicit drug of choice among 12th graders. Drugs including such powerful painkillers as Vicodin and Oxycontin, drugs such as Ritalin to treat ADHD, and tranquilizers such as Valium were among the prescription medications students reported taking for recreational use.
“In all three cases, for the most part, they are getting their pills from friends and family,” Dr. Compton said. Students also said they took painkillers that were prescribed to them but were left over.
“Just because you get a prescription, ... these are not necessarily safe. That’s why you have to have a medical license to prescribe these,” Dr. Compton said.
To help educate teens about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, NIDA has launched a new section of its website.
“These can be lethal when taken incorrectly or in the wrong combination. There’s this general sense, ‘Oh it comes from the local pharmacy. It must be safe,’ ” he added. “That’s a false and particularly dangerous myth.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week