Getting Wise to Reefer Madness: American Teens Are Waking Up, But Not Toking Up

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December 19, 2013 - By Amanda Reiman

Yesterday, the most recent installment of the Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF) was released. MTF is our nation’s barometer for teen drug and alcohol use.

Administered in high schools around the country, MTF asks 8th, 10th and 12th grade students about their drug and alcohol use, and their attitudes towards the use of these substances. The goal of the survey, besides creating a snapshot of where we are with this issue in any given year, is to look at trends in drug and alcohol use and related attitudes.

These trends are perhaps the most telling when trying to assess how to best approach drug education and prevention. With two states now allowing for adult marijuana use and 20 states plus DC allowing medical use, the most recent MTF reveals some very interesting evidence regarding these policy changes.

When looking at marijuana use among teens, rates have been fairly stable since 2009, with use peaking in the late 1970’s and at an all-time low in the early 1990’s. In the past year, marijuana use (annual or daily) did not significantly increase among 8th, 10th or 12th graders. This means that we do not see more young people using marijuana now then we have in the past several years.

A change we have seen, however, is in the perception of risk around marijuana use. The number of teens reporting that regular marijuana use causes “great risk” has been slowly declining since its peak in the late 1980’s.

What does this mean? It means that young people are finally seeing through the reefer madness propaganda that has plagued the progression of marijuana policy reform.

And more importantly, it means that this realistic viewpoint of marijuana use has not resulted in more teens using marijuana. These data indicate that we can develop more reality and less fear driven drug education and it will have the desired effect, preventing young people from using drugs. Honesty has not always been the best policy when it comes to educating teens about drugs, these data show that they can handle the truth, and still make good decisions about their behavior.

Furthermore, while marijuana use among young people is stable, we did see a decline in 8th and 10th graders who claim marijuana is easy to obtain, so, perhaps the move the regulate marijuana through dispensaries has had an impact, making marijuana harder to get. This phenomenon has been captured in three separate studies of young people and marijuana use in medical marijuana states.

The take away from the latest installment of MTF is that we don’t need to fill young peoples’ heads with fear and propaganda around marijuana. Even when the perceived risk of use declines, use itself remains stable, indicating a reduction in reefer madness, and an increase in common sense.

Amanda Reiman is the California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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