Ongoing Briefing (a monthly publication of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML), June 1996, pp. 1-2 & 4

Weeding Through the Hype:
The Truth About Adolescent Marijuana Use

According to federal politicians, drug prohibitionists, and the majority of the national news media, adolescent marijuana use is dramatically on the increase and soaring toward epidemic proportions. This claim has been made so frequently within the past year that one may remain unaware there exists any serious debate on the issue. However, if one takes a closer look at the raw data, it becomes evident that there is little tangible evidence behind the current headlines. Consequently, it appears that this latest round of "reefer madness" is nothing more than a ploy to encourage legislators to stiffen penalties against adult users.

Claim #1: Marijuana use among teens has doubled since 1992. 1 There are several problems with this statement, the most obvious being that it is both misleading and inaccurate. The standard yardstick of adolescent marijuana use rates for more than 20 years has been the Monitoring the Future Report conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Each year, this study tracks the lifetime prevalence of marijuana use among high-school seniors. According to the study, in 1995, 42 percent of all high school seniors had at one time in their lives experimented with marijuana. Admittedly, this figure is an increase over the 32.6 percent who reported having tried marijuana in 1992 - the lowest year of reported lifetime use in the study's history - but it is hardly a doubling. In fact, current use rates are less than two percent higher than they were as recently as 1990 when prevalence stood at 40.7 percent. 2

Additional problems regarding this assertion come from the inherent limitations of self-reporting. Federal statistics regarding adolescent marijuana use are based upon teenagers' willingness to honestly self-report their use of an illicit substance. Therefore, one must take into account the fact that some teens may choose to either under-report or over-report their cannabis use depending on the social stigma or acceptance attached to marijuana at that time. For example, whereas an adolescent taking the survey in 1979 may have chosen to exaggerate his use of marijuana because of the societal notion that marijuana was "cool" and/or "hip," one taking the survey in 1985 may have under-reported his use because of the predominantly anti-marijuana social sentiment that existed at that time.

In addition, while most researchers admit that the results of self-reporting polls monitoring any activity should not be accepted at face value, polls that measure an individual's illicit drug consumption have been specifically criticized by the G.A.O. for their "questionable" accuracy. 3

"Our national drug strategies are based on unsubstantiated and insufficient information," charged Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) after reviewing a 1993 G.A.O. report. "It is impossible to determine [from these surveys] whether ... high school student drug use has been decreasing, increasing, or remaining stable." 4

Claim #2: "Today, our children are smoking more dope ... than at any time in recent memory." 5 Apparently, drug prohibitionists don't possess very long memories. Data from both the Monitoring the Future and the National Household Survey indicate that current rates of adolescent marijuana use, both regular and lifetime, are well below what they were just a few years ago. According to the Monitoring the Future Study, lifetime prevalence of marijuana use among high-school seniors peaked in 1979 at 60 percent, a figure that stands almost one-third higher than today's percentages. 6 During this year, the percentage of youths aged 12-17 who reported regularly using marijuana (defined as once within the past month) to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse also peaked, measuring 16.8 percent. 7 Put in historical perspective, this figure is more than twice as high as today's reportedly "epidemic" 7.3 percent usage rate. Moreover, today's figure is only slightly higher than the percentage of adolescents who regularly consumed marijuana in 1988 (6.4 percent), a date prohibitionists laud as being at the height of the drug war and "just say no" campaign. 8

Claim #3: Users are starting younger. 9 It is true that reports from the Monitoring the Future study have indicated that marijuana use among 8th and 10th graders has been rising since 1992. However, this should come as little surprise because the study only began surveying 8th and 10th graders one year earlier. Not coincidentally, 1991 and 1992 were the lowest years ever recorded for adolescent marijuana use. 10 Since then, use of marijuana has risen for adolescents of all ages. The truth is, we really don't know whether today's teens are using marijuana at a younger age because Monitoring the Future has no data from the 1970s or 1980s to compare it to. Moreover, to weigh today's figures against percentages of 8th and 10th graders taken in 1992 - the year reported adolescent marijuana use rates stood at their lowest in history - serves little scientific purpose and is highly misleading.

Claim #4: "Today's youthful marijuana users ... are tomorrow's cocaine addicts." 11 According to the most recent literature from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the majority of marijuana users do not become dependent or move on to use other illegal drugs. 12 This stands to reason when one realizes that an estimated 70 million Americans have experimented with marijuana at some point in their lives, the majority of whom never went on to use cocaine. 13 Therefore, while it may be true that some cocaine users did first use marijuana as an adolescent, the far more important fact is that the overwhelming number of teen marijuana users never go on to use cocaine or any other illegal narcotic. 14

Claim #5: Adolescent marijuana use poses great harm to society. 15 America survived the 1970s and America will survive the 1990s. While NORML does not suggest that marijuana is totally harmless and certainly does not advocate that anyone - most especially adolescents - consume cannabis, the fact remains that moderate marijuana use is relatively harmless and poses far less cost to society than do the damaging effects of either cigarettes or alcohol. Today, as was the case in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter recommended federal marijuana decriminalization16, far more harm is caused by marijuana prohibition than by marijuana itself.

Adolescent marijuana use should be a legitimate concern for all Americans. However, recently hyped claims about skyrocketing rates of adolescent marijuana use should be examined skeptically and must not be used to justify policies that would harshen penalties against adult users. If anything, recent data showing an increase in marijuana use among adolescents - if accurate - should serve as strong testimony to the failure and ineffectiveness of America's current drug education programs.

We may never truly know why adolescent marijuana use rates fluctuate over time or to what extent social stigmas and/or norms attached to cannabis may influence the accuracy of self-reporting. We do know that adolescence is a period filled with experimentation and that recreational marijuana use - for good or bad - is sometimes a part of this experience. Therefore, it is pertinent that young people, as well as all Americans, are informed of the scientific evidence about marijuana so they can make knowledgeable decisions about both their own drug use and the future of American drug policy.

As this essay demonstrates, the recent claims of rapidly rising and near-epidemic rates of adolescent marijuana use hold little weight under close examination. Furthermore, when put in historical perspective, today's figures warrant only mild concern. Most importantly, rates of adolescent marijuana use must not be used to intensify the war against adult marijuana consumers. We do not arrest responsible adult alcohol drinkers because we want adolescents to avoid alcohol, and neither can we as a nation justify arresting responsible adult marijuana smokers to protect our underage children from marijuana smoking. It is time to move beyond the current headlines and begin pursuing an enlightened policy that would stop treating adult marijuana consumers as criminals.


1. USA Weekend, February 16-18, 1996.

2. University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future Study.

3. "Validity of Drug Use Surveys Questioned." Washington Post, August 4, 1993.

4. Ibid.

5. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), September 22, 1995.

6. University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future Study.

7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

8. Ibid.

9. USA Weekend, February 16-18, 1996.

10. University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future Study.

11. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), December 20, 1995.

12. National Institute on Drug Abuse pamphlets: "Marijuana: facts for teens; Marijuana: What Parents Need to Know.

13. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drugs, Crime and the Justice System, 1992; "The Myth of Marijuana's Gateway Effect," Dr. John P. Morgan and Dr. Lynn Zimmer as it appeared in NORML's Active Resistance, Spring 1995.

14. Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the Scientific Evidence. Dr. John P. Morgan and Dr. Lynn Zimmer, 1995.

15. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), March 6, 1996.

16. "Penalties against a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. The National Commission on Marijuana ... concluded years ago that marijuana use should be decriminalized, and I believe it is time to implement those basic recommendations." President James Earl Carter in a presentation to Congress, August 2, 1977.



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