Are America’s Kids Going to Pot?

By Dirk Hanson 04/07/11

Study after study confirms that teen use of pot and ecstasy is on the rise, while drinking now starts earlier than ever.

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Teen use of pot and X soars.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Teens will be teens—but these days, a significant number of them are potheads and ravers as well. Recent figures released by The Partnership at—the “this is your brain on drugs” people—and compiled by MetLife Foundation for the Partnership, shows a 67%  increase in the number of teens reporting Ecstasy use (from 6% in 2008 10% in 2010). Similarly, the report documents an eye-opening 22% spike in marijuana use among teens, to roughly 40% in 2010. This matches up pretty closely with earlier research compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) showing that daily marijuana use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders increased significantly among all three grades. For the first time, according to the survey, “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 used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes.”

At a news conference held to announce the results of the earlier study, NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow said that “high rates of marijuana use during the teen and pre-teen years, when the brain continues to develop, place our young people at particular risk. 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.”

Yesterday’s Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) also revealed the continuing trend toward ever-younger drinking ages—and here is where the real news may be buried. 62% of teens reported that their first encounter with alcohol took place by age 15—and we’re not talking about the occasional sip or taste. Among teens reporting alcohol use, fully one out of four said that they had their first full alcoholic drink by age 12 or younger. The average age of first alcohol use is now 14. (See earlier Fix coverage of underage drinking). “It’s not like this generation of kids thinks they’re more bulletproof than others,” said Steve Pasierb, president of the Partnership, “but they really don’t see any harm in that heavy drinking.” Which may be putting it mildly. Jennifer C. Kerr of AP reports that almost half the teens questioned in the survey didn’t see any “great risk” in heavy drinking.  Melissa Gilbert, former star of “Little House on the Prairie” and now a spokeswoman for the Partnership, told AP that teen drinking is “much more terrifying these days than it was when we were younger.” Gilbert, a recovering alcoholic, said that being sober isn’t always the easiest way to live, “but it’s definitely the best."

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]