A news article that went national last week sensationally spun the results of a drug-use survey to imply that Washington State students may be smoking more pot due to the state's new legalization law. But it turns out that pot use isn't up. It's steady, even down a little bit.
The Healthy Youth Survey, released last Thursday by state officials, is a biennial trove of data used as the gold standard for gauging risky behavior by students, including smoking, drinking, and using drugs. An Associated Press story blared that pot is twice as popular as cigarettes, while adding that "the number of high school students who believe using marijuana is risky is also at a low point." It went on to quote Washington health secretary Mary Selecky, who said, "As the perception of harm goes down, use goes up." As a result, the article explained, officials "expressed concern that marijuana prevention efforts aren't ready to ramp up in response to the new state law."
In other words: Pot is really popular, kids think it's less harmful, and that leads to higher pot use.
So I pressed state officials for data on pot use among 10th graders—the same grade used to compare pot and tobacco consumption—because the article never cited those figures. If the declining perception of harm causes use to rise, the numbers should bear that out. Once I got the data, though, the numbers showed that while perception of harm has dropped significantly over the last decade, pot consumption among 10th graders remained basically flat. Regular use actually declined slightly, from 20 percent to 19 percent, in the last two years.
So despite the sensational contrast with cigarettes and the warnings of state officials, pot use isn't spiking among teens.
Why is pot twice as popular as cigarettes (which are actually riskier than marijuana)? Largely because society invests a lot of money in antismoking education campaigns. "Smoking has dropped tremendously in the last 10 years," says health department spokesman Tim Church. And while Selecky warns that legal pot will send a bad message to kids, Initiative 502 is designed to do the opposite. The tax revenues we start collecting this December will raise an estimated $110 million for drug-abuse prevention and education each year. That's money we don't currently have, and it's dedicated to discussing the actual risks of marijuana—not hyping fear.