Kids and Pot: Scary? Not!
by Brian C. Bennett

In May 2004, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released a study titled: "Non-Medical Marijuana II: Rite of Passage or Russian Roulette?" The study, funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar's office), continues to hammer home the seven decades old mantra that marijuana is a horribly dangerous and addictive drug. As usual too, the latest round of grand pronouncements by the drug czar were dutifully passed along to the public without question by the media.

I certainly don't mean to castigate the media watchdogs who we average citizens assume are busily holding the government to account for its pronouncements; but as is the case with so many of the things we are told by "authorities" of late, the case against marijuana is still "much ado about nothing."

This time, the alleged problems are being blamed largely on the super powerful marijuana developed over the past undefined timespan which supposedly came about after the rest of us stopped smoking it. The use of this franken-weed is said to be resulting in staggering levels of increased visits to hospital emergency rooms and drug rehabilitation programs, especially among those aged 12 to 17 -- or as they are known in the popular vernacular: "the children."

They certainly make the quoted statistics sound alarming: a 142 percent increase from 1992 to 2001 in the proportion of children and teenagers in treatment for marijuana dependence or abuse, and a 48 percent increase between 1999 and 2002 in the number of marijuana related emergency room visits among those aged 12 to 17. Horrors, whatever shall we do?

First, we need to take a closer look at the drug rehab data. In 1992, some 23 percent of treatment admissions among youth aged 12 to 17 were for marijuana, while 56 percent were for alcohol. By 2001, marijuana admissions had risen to about 62 percent of the total admissions among 12 to 17 year olds, while admissions for alcohol had fallen to just under 23 percent of the total. In other words, alcohol and marijuana traded places as the primary drug for which 12 to 17 year olds were being treated. A quick review of the latest annual Monitoring the Future study, which tracks substance use among the youth of the nation, shows that the rates of past year use of alcohol has been declining while that of marijuana has been increasing. In other words, there are actually more marijuana users among the 12 to 17 demographic now than there were in the early 90's.

Logically, the next question to be asked is: what percentage of past year marijuana users aged 12 to 17 are in treatment for their marijuana use? According to the government's data, the proportion of these kids who end up in drug rehab remains a very small number of those who use marijuana. In 1995, approximately seven-tenths of one percent of past year marijuana users aged 12 to 17 entered drug rehab. By 2001 that number had increased by 43 percent - to just over 1 percent. It seems that 99 percent of these kids are using marijuana without being compelled into treatment.

Let's visit the emergency room next. According to the 'Russian Roulette' study, "Marijuana-related medical emergencies are on the rise among young people." Emergencies? Sounds bad, doesn't it? Indeed, the claim is that such visits have increased by 48 percent from 1999 to 2002. We need a little context though, before we can tell what that fact actually means. In 1999, there were approximately 23 million people age 12 to 17, of whom some 3.3 million (14.3%) were past year marijuana users. In that year, there were 12,730 emergency room visits involving these kids that were marijuana related. If each "mention" involved a different person (which it may or may not) that works out to 0.39 percent of past year users. By 2002, there were 24.7 million people aged 12 to 17, of whom 3.9 million (15.8%) were past year marijuana users. Of those nearly 4 million kids, there were some 18,845 of them "mentioning" marijuana in the emergency room. That works out to 0.48 percent of the past year users. If the pot really is getting "dangerously" strong, it apparently is causing distress for only a minuscule number of its users.

In a nutshell then, we find that approximately 1 percent of past year marijuana users aged 12 to 17 enter drug rehab, and approximately one-half of one percent of them encounter a marijuana related problem which causes them to seek medical attention. Apparently, over 98 percent of these kids seem to be handling the modern day super weed quite well indeed. It can hardly be surprising that kids don't believe that marijuana is dangerous. We know what the kids are smoking, but what are the 'grown-ups' smoking?

Written May 17, 2004

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