Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jan 2012
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2012 The Kansas City Star
Author: Mike Hendricks
Note: Annie Greenberg, The Star's social media coordinator, contributed to
this report.


Booze and dope are evil. Kids have that drummed into them from grade
school on.

Yet while teenage drinking continues a steady decline, marijuana use
is on the rise among American teens, who see the warning message as
bogus when it comes to pot.

"Marijuana has become the drug of choice," said Raytown schools
Superintendent Allan Markley.

A new national study attributes increased marijuana use among
America's youth to the common perception among teens that marijuana is
less harmful than adults make it out to be, reinforced by the changing
attitudes of the American public to pot.

The trend concerns drug counselors and educators like

Because of concerns about substance abuse, Raytown began random drug
testing last fall: 25 students a month at each of its two high
schools. Only a small percentage of kids are exempt from peeing in a
cup -- those who don't participate in extracurricular activities and
whose parents refused to have their children participate in this first
districtwide program of its kind in the immediate metro area.

And while few kids have tested positive since the program began last
fall, there's been a commonality among those who have.

"Primarily it's marijuana," Markley said.

So it is across the nation, according to a study released just before
Christmas by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The key finding:

Daily marijuana use among high school seniors hit a 30-year peak in
2011, even as the use of alcohol and cigarettes is falling off.

It's not some statistical blip. The trend is clear, consistent and
spans the decades.

In 2011, twice as many 10th-graders reported smoking pot at some point
during the month of the survey as did their counterparts 20 years ago:
17.6 percent versus 8.7 percent.

While booze remains the preferred way to catch a buzz among high
school sophomores -- 27.2 percent in 2011 admitted to drinking beer,
wine or spirits within a 30-day period -- that's two-thirds of what it
was in 1991.

It's difficult to find teens and those who have their confidence who
are willing to go on the record about drug use, but many say the
statistics reflect their experience.

"You don't hear about the drinking as much as you do the drug use," a
Johnson County youth baseball coach says of the conversations he
listens in on during long drives to out-of-town tournaments. "The
sense I get is that it's not that big of a deal to them."

Like the flight paths of two jets, one landing and one taking off, the
decline in drinking among high schoolers and the upward trajectory of
marijuana use seem bound to intersect on the charts before long.

While encouraged by the cutback in alcohol, Northland drug counselor
Vicky Ward is concerned that kids seem to be switching their choice of
substances rather than opting to lead soberer lifestyles.

Three factors drive than trend, experts say, and the first is teens'

"They are hearing every day that one state after another is
decriminalizing (marijuana), and when they hear that they get the
perception that it's safe," said Ward, prevention manager at
Tri-County Mental Health Services.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have approved marijuana
use for medicinal purposes, even though the federal government says
medical marijuana is illegal.

Factor No. 2 is that pot is often easier for kids to get their hands
on than alcohol, partly because of all the legal weed being sold in
states like Colorado and California.

And then there's reason No. 3: Teens are picking up on the attitudes
of their elders. The latest Gallup Poll shows that, for the first
time, half of all Americans now think marijuana should be legal. Only
25 percent felt that way as recently as the mid-1990s.

"If this current trend on legalizing marijuana continues," Gallup
said, "pressure may build to bring the nation's laws into compliance
with the people's wishes."

Indeed, a generation ago, Supreme Court nominees and presidential
candidates alike were quizzed about their youthful drug use. In his
first run for the White House in 1992, President Bill Clinton was
mocked for famously saying that he'd tried marijuana once, but didn't

During the current presidential run, the subject never comes

"As a prevention specialist, to me it's a little bit like a
nightmare," Ward said of this cultural shift.

That's because she and others in her field still consider marijuana a
so-called gateway drug to more harmful substances. And while those in
favor of liberalizing marijuana dispute that connection, they have a
much harder time discounting claims that, in smoking pot, users are
damaging their health every bit as much as tobacco users by ingesting
thousands of chemicals along with the active ingredient, THC, that
gives them a high.

Still, that message fails to resonate with teens, who see marijuana as
a healthier alternative to alcohol and less dangerous than heroin,
cocaine or prescription painkillers like oxycontin.

"While growing up we were always told weed was bad, that it had all
these bad side effects, but we found out that was a lie," says a
recent high school grad now at the University of Missouri.

Also, it's a cheaper high.

"I felt it was more economical than drinking alcohol," said a
University of Kansas student who began smoking marijuana regularly
during his senior year at Olathe East High School two years ago.

An eighth of an ounce costs about $60, depending on the strain, but
today's marijuana is much stronger than the ditch weed adults who grew
up in the 1960s remember. A little bit of today's super-pot is the
equivalent of many beers.

And you don't need to go to the trouble of making up a phony ID or
finding some willing adults to buy it for you the way it is for kids
trying to acquire alcohol.

"I don't think the older generation understands how easy it is to
get," the KU student said.

It could become even more accessible in Missouri if a measure
legalizing the drug is put before the voters next fall and passes.

A group calling itself Show-Me Cannabis Regulation recently met the
requirements for circulating an initiative petition and now is trying
to get the necessary 144,000 signatures. although the aim is to get
twice that many to ensure there are enough valid ones.

Asked how the drive is going, coordinator Amber Langston said she's
hopeful the campaign will reach its goal by the April deadline. Some
500 volunteers and businesses, such as It's a Beautiful Day in
Westport, are working to gather the names.

"Some are more go-getters than others," explained Langston, who worked
on successful efforts to liberalize marijuana laws in California and
Colorado, where medical marijuana dispensaries have proliferated. One
in Denver called the Ganja Gourmet even sells pizza, candy and other
foods laced with the drug.

"Your choice of any entree, along with dessert and after-dinner joint,
just $30," its website advertised recently.

Of course, customers must be 21 and have a doctor's prescription.
Likewise, marijuana would be for adults, if the drug were legalized
under the Show-Me Cannabis proposal, no prescription necessary. The
Missouri proposal is for all-out legalization.

"It's safer than alcohol and safer than tobacco," Langston said. "But
does that make it safer for kids to use? I don't think so."

Safe to say, though, that Missouri is not Colorado. Even if Show-Me
Cannabis can get its proposal on the ballot, it would have a tough go
off it, says Republican consultant James Harris, who led an
unsuccessful ballot campaign in 2010 to change how Missouri judges are

"The state's moving culturally right," Harris said. "An issue like
that would be resoundingly defeated."

- - Annie Greenberg, The Star's social media coordinator, contributed to
this report. 
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