Fewer American teenagers consider marijuana to be dangerous, an influential survey has found, a fresh sign of growing public acceptance of a substance that US federal law considers on a par with ecstasy.
Some 39.5 per cent of high-school seniors view marijuana as harmful – down from 44.1 per cent just a year ago – the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said in its Monitoring the Future survey for 2013.
“That’s 60 per cent who think marijuana is not harmful!” exclaimed NIDA, a federal agency, on its blog for teenagers.
Moreover, nearly 23 per cent of school seniors, typically 18-year-olds, said they had smoked marijuana in the month prior to taking part in the survey – and 36 per cent said they had done so in the preceding year.
Under federal law, marijuana is considered a highly addictive Schedule One drug alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
But following referendums, the western states of Colorado and Washington are legalising the sale of the substance for recreational use, while 19 states allow the sale for medicinal use.
In October, for the first time in a Gallup poll, a majority of Americans – 58 per cent – said they favoured the legalisation of marijuana.
With public opinion shifting, the Obama administration in August told federal prosecutors to cease targeting individual marijuana users in states where legalisation is in place.
Instead, it instructed them to focus their efforts on criminal gangs and sales to minors.
Wednesday’s findings alarmed White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who called increased pot use “a serious setback in our nation’s efforts to raise a healthy generation of young people.”
“Today’s news demands that all of us recommit to bolstering the vital role prevention and involved parenting play in keeping young people safe, strong, and ready to succeed,” he said in a statement.
NIDA director Nora Volkow expressed concern not only at the number of teenage users in America, but also the kind of pot they are inhaling.
“It is important to remember that over the past two decades, levels of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) have gone up a great deal, from 3.75 per cent in 1995 to an average of 15 per cent in today’s marijuana cigarettes,” she said.
“Daily use today can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago.”
The Marijuana Policy Project, which campaigns for more liberal marijuana laws, suggested that fewer teens would be smoking pot if it was regulated like alcohol and tobacco, whose use among young people it said has been declining.
“Those selling marijuana in the underground market are not asking for ID” as shopkeepers and bars must do when selling liquor or cigarettes, said spokesman Mason Tvert.
“By regulating marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes and enforcing similar age restrictions, we would very likely see a similar decrease in availability and use among teens.”
NIDA’s survey, conducted by University of Michigan researchers, has monitored high-school seniors since 1975.
It expanded in 1991 to include younger students. For this year, more than 41,000 students at 389 public and private schools were questioned.
This year’s findings also found a drop among high school seniors in the use of so-called synthetic cannabis such as K2 and Spice, which mimic the effects of THC, in favour of genuine marijuana.
Eight per cent said they had used such substances in the past year, compared with 11 per cent in 2012.
Synthetic cannabis nevertheless remains the second most popular illicit drug among students in the 10th and 12th grades, after marijuana.
NIDA also said 7.4 per cent of high school seniors abuse Adderall, a prescription stimulant for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to get high “or for other non-medical reasons.”