Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana late last year. Washington followed suit a month later. Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states while recreational marijuana is decriminalized in 17 states.
The drug’s status has not only evolved legally, but socially as well. A report released Tuesday from the National Institutes of Health finds that 60 percent of 12th grade students say marijuana is not harmful, up from the 56 percent who found it harmless last year. And 6.5 percent reported using marijuana regularly, compared to 6 percent from last year. But the pronounced shift is in comparison to 1993, when 30 percent viewed it as harmless and only 2.5 percent of students used regularly. Dr. Wilson Compton, the deputy director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says there are a number of ongoing investigations into whether marijuana laws have shifted public perception, or vice versa.
“As we have changing policy and legal environment, there’s this perception that (marijuana) is safe or a harmless substance, which is not true,” said Compton, “But as community and society change their attitude, they may be more willing to approve these policy changes.”
An October Gallup poll showed support for marijuana legalization is now at a majority 58 percent, a five fold increase from when Gallup first posed the question in 1969, when legalization support stood at 12 percent.
Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, attributes the seismic shift in public opinion to the advent of the internet, which allowed people to anonymously access a wide range of scientific information on marijuana.
“When the public had the ability to learn for themselves about it,” says Armentano. “The support for change in policy began to change.”
But with more than 12 percent of eighth graders reporting they’ve used marijuana in the past year, Compton says NIDA is concerned about the rate of marijuana use among young adolescents.
A recent Northwestern Medicine study found teens who use marijuana daily for an extended amount of time have abnormal brain structures and perform poorly on memory tests. The study also found that individuals who begin using marijuana at a younger age had more abnormally shaped brains, possibly indicating a link.
“We’re concerned about use by anyone, but particularly by very young people. They’re in a crucial development stage,” says Compton. “The impact of the substance may be particularly significant for the adolescent brain.”
David Sheff, the author of “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy“, says the public education on marijuana has been misleading, and subsequently, lost its credibility with students.
“There was an effort to paint broadstroke that all drugs are bad, that you’ll steal from your family, end up in jail and die,” said Sheff. “But that message was discredited by what kids saw. Kids saw kids smoking pot and doing ok.”
The spotlight on marijuana hasn’t produced a comprehensive and nuanced public discourse on the safety of the drug, says Compton. Marijuana is not necessary just safe or not safe, harmful or harmless.
“It could be possible that marijuana could be helpful, but also harmful in other dosages and situations,” says Compton. “We see that with many medications, we see it with stimulants, in the right hands all medication can be helpful and important, but it can also cause harm in other situations.”
The merits of a nuanced public discourse and well-crafted educational campaign are highlighted in the survey findings of declining use of tobacco and alcohol. Cigarette smoking among 8th, 10th and 12th graders sampled are at an unprecedented 9.6 percent, compared with the 24.7 percent recorded in 1993 and 16.7 percent in 2003. Alcohol use for seniors stands at 39.2 percent, down from the 52.7 percent in 1997.
“Certainly in the area of tobacco, there’s been changes in youth attitude toward social disapproval,” says Compton.
Sheff argues schools and communities need to target marijuana use the same way they targeted cigarette and alcohol use. He cites the success of the truth campaign, which targeted cigarettes ads for manipulating kids into thinking smoking was cool. And the nuanced national discussion around safe alcohol use, leading to wider social awareness of how much an individual drinks and when it’s safe to drink.
Armentano says educators and policymakers ought to focus on why alcohol and tobacco use has declined among teens and apply that lesson to marijuana.
“We have a blueprint on how to drive down access,” Armentano says.
He says that we talk about use and abuse with a legal substance like alcohol, but make no distinction between casual and frequent marijuana use because of its illegal status. He cites important distinctions such as “social drinking and binge drinking, consuming alcohol and alcoholic, having a beer at dinner and one for the road,”
“The classification doesn’t allow us to have those conversations of when use is potentially abused,” Armentano says.
The survey also found that 34 percent of marijuana-using 12th graders living in states where medical marijuana is legal obtain through someone else’s medical prescription, and 6 percent of them obtained it with their own prescription.
Compton says NIDA is unprepared to make conclusions. In the report, the researchers note: “the team of investigators who conduct the survey will continue to explore the link between state laws and marijuana accessibility to teens.”
Compton says the results of the 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey, which samples 8th grade, 10th grade and 12th grade students, impels the NIH and NIDA to do further research on the effects of marijuana on the adolescent brain.
But Sheff says it’s important to understand why kids are using marijuana, now just how.
“There’s more stress, more anxiety, more alienation,” Sheff says, “We have the race to succeed, and other kids are growing up in bleak environments.”