The federal government quietly published new national survey data in December that shows rates of teen marijuana use in Colorado and Washington — the first two states to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use — decreased more than the national average in 2014-2015. Fewer teens in the two states are reportedly using marijuana than in 2012-2013, just prior to the commencement of legal adult marijuana sales.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released the results of the 2014-2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) on Tuesday along with a press release that did not include any mention of marijuana.
According to the NSDUH:
- In Colorado, the rate of 12-17-year-olds who used marijuana in the past month dropped 1.43 percentage points from 12.56% in 2013-2014 to 11.13% in 2014-2015, compared to 11.16% in 2012-2013. The rate of past-year use dropped 2.46 percentage points from 20.81% in 2013-2014 to 18.35% in 2014-2015, compared to 18.76% in 2012-2013.
- In Washington, the rate of 12-17-year-olds who used marijuana in the past month dropped 0.89 percentage points from 10.06% in 2013-2014 to 9.17% in 2014-2015, compared to 9.81% in 2012-2013. The rate of past-year use dropped 1.92 percentage points from 17.53% in 2013-2014 to 15.61% in 2014-2015, compared to 16.48% in 2012-2013.
- Nationwide, the rate of past-month marijuana use among 12-17-year-olds dropped 0.02 percentage points from 7.22% in 2013-2014 to 7.2% in 2014-2015, and the rate of past-year use dropped 0.42 percentage points from 13.28% to 12.86%.
The overall findings of the NSDUH are in line with those of the annual Monitoring the Future survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which were released last week and found little change in rates of teen marijuana use.
The results of an annual survey of U.S. middle and high school students released Tuesday invalidate claims that reforming marijuana laws and debating legalization will lead to increased marijuana use among teens.
According to the Monitoring the Future Survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):
• Among 8th-graders, the rate of past-year marijuana use dropped significantly from 11.8% in 2015 to 9.4% in 2016, its lowest level since 1993. Past-month marijuana use also dropped significantly, from 6.5% in 2015 to 5.4% in 2016, and daily use dropped from 1.1% in 2015 to 0.7% in 2016.
• Among 10th- and 12th-graders, rates of past-year, past-month, and daily marijuana use remained relatively stable compared to last year.
• Rates of use among 12th-graders appear to be higher in states with medical marijuana laws than in states without them, but previous studies have found that rates of use were already higher prior to the adoption of such laws.
• Students’ perception of risk surrounding marijuana remained relatively stable from 2015 to 2016. The perception that marijuana is very easy or fairly easy to access declined slightly for 8th- and 10th-graders, and it increased slightly for 12th-graders.
Since 2012, eight states and the nation’s capital have adopted laws that make marijuana legal for adult use. Since 1996, 28 states have adopted laws that make marijuana legal for seriously ill patients whose doctors recommend it.
MPP's Mason Tvert sees this as more evidence that one of the more popular claims by prohibitionists is simply a scare tactic:
“Every time a state considers rolling back marijuana prohibition, opponents predict it will result in more teen use. Yet the data seems to tell a very different story. There has been a sea change in state marijuana laws over the past six years and teen usage rates have remained stable and even gone down in some cases.
“The best way to prevent teen marijuana use is education and regulation, not arresting responsible adult consumers and depriving sick people of medical marijuana. It is time to adopt marijuana policies that are based on evidence instead of fear.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has decided that marijuana will remain classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. The decision to keep marijuana in the category reserved for drugs with no accepted medical uses and a high potential for abuse was, according to the DEA, based on consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services. According to DEA administrator Chuck Rosenberg, “If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes — and it could change — then the decision could change…. But we will remain tethered to science, as we must, and as the statute demands. It certainly would be odd to rely on science when it suits us and ignore it otherwise."
The fact that the DEA has maintained its position that marijuana has no accepted medical value may come as a surprise to many, especially given the thousands, if not millions, of seriously ill patients who currently use marijuana to treat a number of symptoms and conditions.
In a more positive development, it was also announced that the federal government will be removing major obstacles to marijuana research. The only source of federally approved research-grade marijuana has been the University of Mississippi, and it has been so difficult for researchers to obtain that it has effectively created a research monopoly held by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Now, universities may apply for federal approval to grown their own supply of marijuana, creating fewer roadblocks for researchers in the future.
A national survey released Tuesday found teen marijuana usage rates decreased from 2013 to 2014 — a period marked by heightened national debate regarding marijuana policy and implementation of the nation’s first marijuana legalization laws.
According to the annual Monitoring the Future Survey, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), rates of annual, monthly, and daily marijuana use dropped among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders. More details are available in the researchers’ press release.
Teens’ perception of ‘great risk’ in marijuana use also decreased among students in all three grades, contradicting the often-heard claim that public dialogue about the benefits of ending marijuana prohibition — including discussion of the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol and other substances — will result in more teens using marijuana.
In August, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that rates of current and lifetime marijuana use among the state’s high school students has dropped since marijuana became legal for adults. More information is available here.
There has been more public dialogue about marijuana over the past year than any 12-month period in history. States around the country are making marijuana legal for adults, establishing medical marijuana programs, and decriminalizing marijuana possession, and the sky is not falling. The debate is not resulting in more marijuana use among young people, but it is resulting in more sensible marijuana laws.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has started taking control of the medical research for marijuana and is focusing more on marijuana use patterns rather than its potential benefits, Businessweek reports. NIDA currently serves as the gatekeeper for marijuana’s medical research. NIDA also provides oversight for the farms that grow the plants that can be used in clinical trials. However, advocates say that NIDA’s control over which plants can be used effectively makes it impossible to test the benefits of marijuana on ailments such as cancer-related nausea or epilepsy. Many believe that the supply should not be controlled entirely by one organization.
MPP’s director of federal policies, Dan Riffle, weighed in on this issue. He claimed that the federal researchers aren’t “set up to study potential medical benefits, so it’s inappropriate for NIDA to have a monopoly on supply.” MPP and other marijuana advocates are pushing for the DEA to grant additional growing permits so that marijuana can be researched in conjunction with other diseases. This is partly because of organizations, like the Epilepsy Foundation, that want end restrictions on research for marijuana’s effect on alleviating seizures. With NIDA controlling the supply, there is not enough marijuana to test all of its medical benefits.
Members of Congress grilled a representative from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Tuesday at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and slammed the office for failing to acknowledge key facts about marijuana. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) chided the drug czar's office for relying on marijuana "propaganda." Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) criticized the office for failing to address the National Institute on Drug Abuse's obstruction of research into the medical benefits of marijuana.
During his testimony regarding the Obama administration's marijuana policy, ONDCP Deputy Director Michael Botticelli refused to acknowledge that marijuana poses less potential harm to the consumer than heroin or methamphetamine.
Some of the highlights of the hearing:
Rep. Blumenauer telling Dir. Botticelli "you're part of the problem." ...
Rep. Cohen telling Dir. Botticelli to "ask Phillip Seymour Hoffman if marijuana is as dangerous as heroin." ...
Rep. Gerry Connolly pressing the witness on the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.
Following the Wednesday release of a national survey on teen drug use, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) called on the agency to investigate whether regulating marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes could produce similar reductions in use among teens.
According to the annual Monitoring the Future national survey on drug use, the current use of alcohol and tobacco has dropped among teens in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. Current marijuana use increased slightly among 8th- and 10th-graders and decreased slightly among 12th-graders. Current use is defined as use within the past 30 days.
"The results suggest that regulating alcohol and cigarettes is successfully reducing teen use, whereas marijuana prohibition has been unsuccessful," said MPP director of communications Mason Tvert. "At the very least, this data should inspire NIDA to examine the possibility that regulating marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes could be a more effective approach than the current system."
Yesterday, MPP issued a release based on a preliminary summary of the survey results, in which it announced its expectation that marijuana use had not increased among teens. The full survey results show that marijuana use within thirty days of the survey has increased from 6.5% to 7% among 8th-graders and from 17% to 18% among 10th-graders. It has decreased from 22.9% to 22.7% among 12th-graders. Current alcohol use has decreased from 11% to 10.2% among 8th-graders, from 27.6% to 25.7% among 10th-graders, and from 41.5% to 39.2% among 12th-graders. Cigarette use in the past thirty days decreased from 4.9% to 4.5% among 8th-graders, from 10.8% to 9.1% among 10th-graders, and from 17.1% to 16.3% among 12th-graders.
"Those selling marijuana in the underground market are not asking for ID," Tvert said. "By regulating marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes and enforcing similar age restrictions, we would very likely see a similar decrease in availability and use among teens."
Colorado’s experience with regulating medical marijuana suggests that regulation might be reducing teen use. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey released in June 2012 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, marijuana use by Colorado high school students dropped 11% from 2009 to 2011, the time period in which the state and its localities began regulating medical marijuana. Nationwide, teen marijuana use increased 11% during that time period.
The Rorschach Inkblot test asks people to make up stories about ambiguous pictures. Rorschach’s hope was that the tales people told about each blot would reveal something about personal predilections and an approach to the world. Well, our friends at the National Institute on Drug Abuse have just published a nice inkblot test for the media. The experiment, “Tolerance to Effects of High-Dose Oral D9-Tetrahydrocannabinol and Plasma Cannabinoid Concentrations in Male Daily Cannabis Smokers,” is about (you guessed it!) developing tolerance to THC. We’ll see how media handle the implications of the results. It’s either a reassuring result for those concerned about safety on the roads or a chance for misguided alarms about purported dependence.
The experimenters drafted 13 guys who were experienced cannabis smokers to stay in the lab for several days. Each day, they had to swallow more and more Marinol. Marinol is pure THC in a pill, but without the cannabinoids and various compounds found in whole plant cannabis that mitigate the psychotropic effects of THC and perform other beneficial health functions. Many people have reported that Marinol left them far more impaired than plant cannabis, undoubtedly for this very reason. In fact, one guy dropped out “for personal reasons” and another “due to psychological reactions to THC.” These guys had smoked marijuana at least 1,000 times, so I’m guessing that they would have had a handle on “psychological reactions to THC” if they’d been allowed to (heaven forbid!) use their own stash. But the dosage was nothing to sneeze at — 120 mg of THC per day — or the equivalent amount of THC as three joints of decent medical cannabis in the U.S.
Why use Marinol instead of vaporized cannabis? As the authors proudly assert, “Many patients take oral cannabinoids daily for weeks or months with persisting beneﬁcial clinical effects.” Yes. It is now okay for researchers at NIDA to say that oral cannabinoids are good. They mean Marinol, of course, but explaining why this wouldn’t apply to edibles is going to take quite the pretzel twist of logic. Stay tuned.
So what happened? As the title suggests, subjective reactions dropped dramatically in a few days. The guys were only about half as “high” by day five as they were on the first day of taking Marinol. But the amount of THC in their blood remained the same. That’s the definition of tolerance — a decreased effect with the same dosage. So the same guy with the same amount of THC in his blood felt fewer effects on one day than he did a couple days before.
What does this mean? Ah! That’s the real Rorschach Inkblot test for the media. What it really means is that tolerance to the subjective effects of THC is a lot like the tolerance we see for prescription drugs like Vicodin and other over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl. Folks who feel high at first don’t feel it after a few doses. It’s not much of a leap to assume that these effects correlate with motor skills. All the worry about medical users screwing up at work is probably misplaced; they’ll be tolerant after a few doses. And per se driving laws that suggest that a certain amount of THC in the blood means someone is definitely impaired are on thin ice. Different people with different levels of tolerance will react differently to the same dosage.
But Vicodin and Benadryl are not the center of fierce and emotional debates about driving. Antihistamines and prescription opiates alter subjective states. They can impair performance on the road, too, but their subjective effects decrease after a few doses. Notice that you don’t see widespread debate about how much of each of these drugs you’re allowed to have in your blood when you sit behind the steering wheel. Why should cannabis be any different?
As an aside, roadside sobriety tests that require actually doing something (standing on one foot, walking a straight line) are a good indicator of how well people can drive. They certainly beat the number of nanograms of metabolites of cannabis, Vicodin, or Benadryl per unit of blood. They’re also sensitive to conditions that have nothing to do with drugs, like fatigue or illness. But if the media mention any of these points, color me surprised.
What will the media do instead? I’m guessing here, and I hope I’m wrong. But I bet they’ll scream, “Tolerance! Oh no! That means THC leads to dependence.” This little logical leap is quite elegant. Alarmists might use these data to say that THC must be likely to cause dependence. Of course, one symptom does not make a dependence diagnosis. And we might actually have to think a minute about why tolerance is a symptom of dependence in the first place. With toxic drugs like alcohol and tobacco, the more you ingest, the more you hurt yourself. So tolerance to these drugs means people take more to get the same subjective effect, leading them to more and more damage. For alcohol and tobacco, this means greater risks of cancer, for example. But THC’s toxicity has been hard to find without elaborate equipment looking intensely at dinky portions of the brain after multiple years of use. And some of these studies end in big surprises. For example, two years of exposure has made rodents more likely to stay alive and less likely to get tumors, which is the exact opposite of toxicity.
So, we’ve discovered that the subjective effects of THC decrease after repeated doses. The finding’s unambiguous, but the stories people will tell about it could be as different as responses to an ink blot. Unfortunately, this ambiguity could end up having serious implications as states continue to experiment with alternatives to marijuana prohibition.
Dr. Mitch Earleywine is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where he teaches drugs and human behavior, substance abuse treatment and clinical research methods. He is the author of more than 100 publications on drug use and abuse, including “Understanding Marijuana” and “The Parents’ Guide to Marijuana.” He is the only person to publish with both Oxford University and High Times.
"The scientific record demonstrates that the cost of discontinuing the pursuit of potentially life-saving medications, because such compounds could be illegally diverted and abused, would be unacceptably high."
You might expect that the quote above came from MPP or some other medical marijuana activists in response to critics who oppose medical marijuana laws. You’d be wrong. It’s actually from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the same agency that recently forced the National Cancer Institute to change its story after posting information on its website about marijuana’s efficacy in the treatment of cancer and chemotherapy side effects.
So what’s with the quote? You’ve probably heard of synthetic marijuana – K2 or “Spice” – which many people use instead of marijuana because (a) it’s legal (at least under federal law and in some states) and (b) it’s not going to get them fired if their employer drug tests. The chemicals are sprayed onto herbs which users smoke with the hopes of achieving a marijuana-like high. Unfortunately, while the chemicals are intended to mimic those in marijuana, they are actually much more dangerous and have led to numerous hospitalizations for rapid heart rate and blood pressure increases, anxiety, and hallucinations.
So where did the drug come from? Former Clemson University scientist John Huffman and his students discovered the compounds after obtaining a research grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). With a grant of just over $2.5 million dollars, Huffman and his students and colleagues spent a decade developing over 500 synthetic cannabinoids. NIDA had originally asked him to synthesize the human metabolite of THC, but later modified their request to ask Huffman to focus on potential medical applications and THC’s effect on the brain.
Now that the DEA has placed an emergency ban on several of the chemicals used to make it, NIDA is defending itself from accusations that it’s responsible for the scourge. When ABC News asked NIDA officials to comment on an upcoming story, they gave the quote above and pointed out that “[r]esearch into cannabinoids has the potential to usher in the next generation of pain medications as well as possible treatments for obesity and multiple sclerosis."
Of course, I don’t point all this out to belittle NIDA’s comments – it’s true that this research is incredibly important. But given their position, you’ve got to wonder why NIDA officials have been working so hard to stifle research of real marijuana for so long.
As for the popularity of the more dangerous fake marijuana, that’s prohibition for you. If people had a legal, regulated way to obtain real marijuana without fear of repercussions, there wouldn’t be a need to create more dangerous fake alternatives. As Dr. Huffman himself says, “I talked to a marijuana provider from California, a doctor, a physician, and he said that in California, that these things are not near the problem they are in the rest of the country simply because they can get marijuana … and it's essentially decriminalized. And marijuana is not nearly as dangerous as these compounds.”
I remember reaching mile 26 of The Western Hemisphere Marathon and thinking blissfully “this feels great!” For some runners, it might have even felt familiar. Sure enough, researchers throughout the world are illuminating the important role of the cannabinoid system in our experience of altered states like joy and the “runner’s high.” As a recent NY Times article mentions, a strenuous run on a treadmill increases the body’s own natural cannabinoids. Rodents with an impaired cannabinoid system don’t seem to hike around the cage as much as those with a normal system. Other work in the past decade has received less press, but shows that cannabinoids can protect brain cells against certain forms of injury, play an important role in sleep, and alter inflammation and pain. This is all good news. I can’t help wonder, however, if we wouldn’t be much further along in this research under other circumstances.
How much has prohibition against cannabis stymied research? The world may never know. International treaties have made the plant illegal everywhere, but attitudes vary across nations. The U.S. has been at the forefront of scientific research in many areas, but not always with cannabis. In fact, federal obstruction of research has made the U.S. lag far behind many countries in the field of cannabinoid medicine. The THC molecule and the cannabinoid receptor were first identified in Israel. Links between cannabinoids and Alzheimer’s were established in Spain. Work on THC’s inhibition of atherosclerosis appeared in Switzerland. We certainly do interesting work on this topic in the U.S., too, but I think we’ve fallen down dreadfully in the study of medical marijuana in real live people. What’s the best strain for headache? Nausea? Insomnia? We don’t know. Despite American ingenuity and a huge underground market with thousands of strains, anyone who wants to give cannabis to people in a U.S. laboratory is essentially stuck with the one type available through the National Institute of Drug Abuse. We’re only now learning the import of cannabidiol and the host of cannabinoids other than THC, in part because of the quick jump to the study of a synthetic version that developed out of fear of stems and leaves.
International research has revealed that cannabinoids are key to an astounding number of bodily functions. They show promise for battling cancer and preserving our hearts and minds. An end to prohibition could free up so much work. The potential for discoveries is truly staggering. But time waits for none of us. The sickest of the sick need this work done as quickly as possible. We can’t let old laws developed in another era impair the research of today.
No one should go to jail for owning a green weed. No one should suffer from illness because a government fears a plant.