Marijuana and the thinking teenager

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Paul Danish/Sue France

The anti-marijuana-legalization movement has made the claim that legalization will lead to an eruption in teenage marijuana use a central part of its narrative.

But it turns out that the kids didn’t get the memo.

The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research is out with its latest national survey of teenage drug use, including marijuana use, and what it found was that since 2012, the year that Colorado and Washington state legalized pot, teenage drug use is down, not up.

What’s more, it found that the current cohort of American teenagers smokes less tobacco, drinks less alcohol, and does fewer drugs generally than any since the survey began in 1975.

The survey, which is now in its 42nd year, queries about 45,000 eighth, 10th and 12th grade students in some 380 public and private secondary schools around the country about personal drug use.

This year, it found that since 2012 the percentage of eighth and 10th grade students who reported ever using marijuana had dropped from 15.2 percent to 12.8 percent in 2016 for eighth graders and from 33.8 percent 29.7 percent for 10th graders. For 12th graders the numbers were 45.2 percent in 2012 and 44.5 percent in 2016.

The percentage of teens that had used marijuana in the past 30 days was also down for each class from 2012 to 2016: from 6.5 percent to 5.4 percent for eighth graders, 17.0 percent to 14 percent for 10th graders, and 22.9 percent to 22.5 percent for 12th graders. (The numbers for 12th graders were essentially flat; the 2016 number was up from 21.3 percent in 2015, but still below the 2012 percentage.)

During the same period tobacco use dropped more than 50 percent among eighth and 10th graders and nearly 50 percent among 12th graders. And compared to 20 years ago, tobacco use among high school students has collapsed. For instance, in 1996, 22.2 percent of high school seniors reported smoking cigarettes daily. For 2016, the figure is 4.8 percent.

There was a similar downward trend in alcohol use as well. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of teens who had had a drink during the previous 30 days dropped by a third to a half depending on the class.

All of which left the folks conducting the study and other supposed substance abuse experts at a loss to explain the trends.

“The question is: Why is all this happening?” said Lloyd Johnson, who has directed the University of Michigan survey since its inception. “Even though we have some hypotheses, I don’t know that we necessarily have the right ones.”

He said he thinks the decline in smoking may have played a part in the broader decline, because tobacco is the gateway drug to alcohol and other drug use for teenagers.

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, suggested that social media and video games may have played a role — by keeping kids busy at home and away from peer pressure to drink and use drugs.

“There may be a protective effect brought about by the fact that they don’t have so many occasions to get together where the use of drugs would be facilitated,” she told USA Today, but also said that she didn’t have hard data to support the idea.

This is more than a little ironic, since the country’s nanny-statist busy bodies also attack video games and social media as addictive and isolating.

Actually, I think Ms. Volkow may have a point about the role of social media in discouraging teenage drug use, but not in the way she thinks.

It may be that social media has given teenagers unprecedented access to information about the actual effects and risks, both good and bad, of various recreational drugs — and that this has allowed them to distinguish between use and abuse, and to make rational, informed decisions about drug use.

Interesting, isn’t it that the head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse finds the internet valuable in fighting drug use not because it informs and allows people to reason together, but because it isolates. It tells you a lot about why the war on drugs has been a colossal failure.