The National Institute on Drug Abuse unveiled the results of its annual Monitoring the Future survey today, finding that teen marijuana use is on the rise while alcohol and tobacco use continue to fall.
The 2012 survey showed that tobacco use has dropped significantly from its peak rates in 1996, with only 15.5 percent of 8th graders and 27.7 percent of 10th graders ever having smoked a cigarette. Meanwhile, alcohol use among teens is at its lowest level in the history of the survey.
At the same time, marijuana use among teens is rising, with nearly 23 percent of students saying they smoked it in the month prior to the survey. Frequent marijuana use among teens is also escalating, with 6.5 percent of high school seniors now smoking it every day, up from 5.1 percent in 2007.
It is promising that teen cigarette smoking and alcohol use are on the decline – not just because they pose serious health risks, but because it illustrates that legal regulation and honest education are more effective at discouraging teen use than prohibition and criminalization. Young people consume marijuana at higher rates than cigarettes and have an easier time buying it than alcohol, because cigarettes and alcohol are more strictly controlled. Meanwhile, the U.S. arrests 750,000 people every year for nothing more than simple marijuana possession.
Rather than measuring success by small fluctuations in drug use, it is time to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with drug abuse that focuses on how to reduce drug harms. We must favor evidence-based approaches to curbing overdose, addiction and disease transmission over supporting the status quo that arrests more than 1.6 million Americans each year on drug charges. We must promote honest, fact-based drug education for young people that fosters trust, not fear. And we must accept that the war on drugs has had profound human, fiscal, and public health costs – while bringing us no closer to finding real solutions for drug-related harms.
Ultimately, it is time to bring marijuana under the rule of law and regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol, imposing age restrictions, licensing guidelines, and other regulatory controls. Evidence illustrates that this would be the most effective way to reduce teen marijuana use. Regulation would also begin to curb the harms caused by prohibition, including mass incarceration and severe racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws.
The time to embrace this strategy is here. This November brought historic victories for sensible marijuana policy in Washington and Colorado. Public support for reform continues to grow, with one recent survey finding over half of Americans support legalization. By moving away from a failed strategy that criminalizes people who use drugs, we can focus our resources on doing what works to reduce drug harm – and protect young people in the process.