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Marijuana use among teenagers

Skyview High Resource Officer Chris Simpson says students confide in him about how easy it is to get marijuana now that it has been legalized for medical use in Montana.


Cigarettes or marijuana?

For teenagers across the country — and in Montana — the choice is apparently pot.

For the first time since 1981, the number of high school seniors reporting they had smoked marijuana in the past 30 days outnumbered those who said they had smoked cigarettes.

The rate of eighth-graders saying they have used an illicit drug in the past year jumped to 16 percent, up from last year's 14.5 percent, with daily marijuana use up in all grades surveyed, according to the 2010 Monitoring of the Future Survey.

For 12th-graders, declines in cigarette use accompanied by recent increases in marijuana use have put marijuana ahead of cigarette smoking by some measures. In 2010, 21.4 percent of high school seniors had used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse this month issued the survey, an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes and values of American secondary school students, college students and young adults. Each year, a total of approximately 50,000 eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students are surveyed.

Key findings in the 36th annual survey include:

Marijuana use, which had been rising among teens for the past two years, continues to rise again this year — a sharp contrast to the considerable decline of the preceding decade.

Ecstasy use, which fell out of favor in the early 2000s as concerns about its dangers grew, appears to be making a comeback.

Alcohol use — and, specifically, occasions of heavy dfrinking — continues its long-term decline among teens into 2010, reaching historically low levels.

The escalation of marijuana use comes as no surprise to Chris Simpson, school resource officer at Skyview High. It is a pervasive problem throughout the school district, which is a drug-free zone, as well as the community. The mixed message about the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes is a large part of the problem, he said.

Youths seeking a high will sometimes steal marijuana from those possessing a medical marijuana card. Simpson said students have confided in him how easy it is now to obtain the illegal drug since it has been legalized for medical purposes.

He said he and other school resource officers investigate every complaint and occasionally use drug-sniffing dogs.

Montana voters approved medical marijuana by initiative in 2004. The state, which a year ago had fewer than 4,000 medical marijuana patients, now has nearly 23,000 people with a medical marijuana cards. Growth and sale of the drug have become a booming business in the state. The law allows qualified patients and their caregivers to grow and/or possess a restricted number of marijuana plants.

Part of the spike in marijuana use also is youthful experimentation.

“Kids always have to have a trend that they like to party with, and marijuana seems to be the drug of choice right now,” Simpson said. “Back in the '80s, it was keggers.”

The uptick in marijuana use coincides with a downturn in cigarette sales, both in Montana and the rest of the nation. Cigarette sales in Montana declined from 71 million packs sold in fiscal year 1999, to 46 million packs in fiscal year 2010, a 35 percent drop. That is due partly to a massive education, prevention and marketing campaign.

“These high rates of marijuana use during the teen and pre-teen years, when the brain continues to develop, places our young people at particular risk,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Not only does marijuana affect learning, judgment and motor skills, but research tells us that about 1 in 6 people who start using it as adolescents become addicted.”

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services acknowledges that marijuana is making a strong comeback among high school students, with growing use and softening attitudes starting in eighth grade.

The 2010 Montana Prevention Needs Assessment suggests that marijuana use rises as the parental acceptability increases. Perceived peer acceptability of marijuana use also plays a role.

“The influence of parents and peers has a very strong correlation if youth are going to use marijuana,” said Vicki Turner, director of the DPHHS Prevention Resource Center. “As parents, we need to step inward during those adolescent years because if we can keep them from using by age 19, their likelihood of using as an adult decreases drastically.”

Contact Cindy Uken at or 657-1287.

Contact Cindy Uken at or 657-1287.