Survey: Marijuana Use Outstrips Tobacco Use Among Teens

BY Lea Winerman  December 14, 2010 at 12:54 PM EDT

More high school seniors have used marijuana in the past month than have smoked a cigarette, according to a federal study released Tuesday.

The National Institutes of Health’s annual Monitoring the Future study has surveyed trends in teen alcohol, tobacco and drug use since 1975. In 2010, marijuana use ticked up slightly while tobacco use stayed steady. So by some measures, for the first time in decades, marijuana was more popular than cigarettes among teens: In this year’s survey, 21.4 percent of twelfth graders used marijuana in the past 30 days, while only 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes.

The researchers surveyed more than 46,000 students in grades 8, 10 and 12.

Overall, marijuana use in all three grades continued a three-year rising trend, after declining between 2002 and 2007. For example, 6.1 percent of high school seniors used marijuana daily in 2010, compared with 5.2 percent in 2009. Among tenth graders, daily use rose from 3.1 percent to 3.8 percent, and among eighth graders it rose from 1 percent to 1.2 percent.

“Though this upward shift is not yet very large, its duration and pervasiveness leave no doubt in our minds that it is real,” Lloyd Johnston, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Teen marijuana use is still far below the peak it hit decades ago, though — in 1979 about 37 percent of high-school seniors reported using marijuana in the past month.
Still, federal officials said that the upward trend was worrisome. National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow said in a statement: “These high rates of marijuana use during the teen and pre-teen years, when the brain continues to develop, place our young people at particular risk.”

And Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that efforts to legalize medical marijuana may be behind the shift. “Mixed messages about drug legalization, particularly marijuana, may be to blame,” he said.

But advocates of the legalization of marijuana took issue with that claim.

“The evidence on marijuana use suggests that it goes up and down in cycles like other fads. The continued decline in cigarette smoking points to the efficacy of public health measures, whereas the apparent increase in marijuana use suggests that arresting 750,000 Americans each year for marijuana possession is a costly and inefficient deterrent,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Time.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Fewer students were binge drinking than last year: 23.2 percent of twelfth graders reported having five or more drinks in a row during the past two weeks, down from 25.2 percent last year and from a peak of 31.5 percent in 1998.

  • More younger teens were trying ecstasy: 2.4 percent of eighth graders used ecstasy in 2010, compared to 1.3 percent in 2009, and use of the drug rose from from 3.7 percent to 4.7 percent among tenth graders.