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Up in Smoke

Marijuana use rising among American teens

Not that it wasn’t predictable, but the federal government, fueled by new Monitoring the Future data collected by the University of Michigan on behalf of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is reporting a rise in the illicit use of marijuana among high school students.


Did we really believe the loosening of restrictions on marijuana sales, possession, and use – including those related to “medicinal marijuana” – were to have no effect on those we have worked so hard to protect from the ravages of substance use condition and disorder. Not so much. In fact, the national Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) organization predicted as much when it rallied publicly against decriminalizing the possession of marijuana years ago, stating, “Decriminalization would encourage increased use, including among teenagers. Decriminalization also sends the message that marijuana is harmless, which is not the case. The developing brains of teenagers are susceptible to negative changes as a result of drug and alcohol use, and these changes can be permanent.”

This statement foreshadowed much of the information just released from NIDA, including reference to the normalizing of use and detrimental impact on maturing adolescent brains. Citing a new study by scientists at Northwestern University, NIDA director Dr. Nora D. Volkow, said, “What is worrisome is that we’re seeing high levels of everyday use of marijuana among teenagers…the type that is most likely to have negative effects on brain function and performance.”

What are those effects?

According to the Northwestern study, they include differences in structures such as the thalamus, globus pallidus and striatum. Translation: a decline in “working memory” vital to such tasks as solving puzzles, remembering numbers or quickly processing information needed to perform everyday tasks. Working memory is also a strong predictor of academic success, according to Matthew J. Smith, an author of the study.

The NIDA report also highlights concern that the relaxation of restrictions on marijuana (which can now be sold legally in 20 states and Washington, DC...with New York apparently on deck) has been influencing the behavior of teenagers. The federal statistics tell us that more than 12 percent of eighth graders and 36 percent of high school seniors, at both public and private schools, reported smoking marijuana in the past year. Perhaps most alarming is that approximately 60 percent of seniors said they did not believe regular use of the drug is harmful.

Similar attitudes were reflected in recent driving research conducted by SADD and Liberty Mutual Insurance, in which 23 percent of teens admit to driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. A whopping one in four teens (25 percent) who have driven under the influence of marijuana say they’re not distracted “at all” when mixing substance use with driving.

With 13 million driving-aged teenagers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we have reason to be afraid.

Very afraid.

The NIDA report also contains some good news noting alcohol use by teens – including bouts of heavy or “high risk” drinking – continues to decline, as does use of most every other illicit drug, including Vicodin, abuse of which is half what it was ten years ago.

The takeaway?

Prevention programming, such as the type provided by SADD through its thousands of school-based chapters across the country, works…especially when we intentionally take two important steps:

  • Identify significant trends in substance use condition and substance use disorder;
  • Empower youth and all caring adults to talk about adolescent decision-making, convening key stakeholders in communities (school, public safety, parents and teens) to reach consensus and take action on prevention initiatives.

Finally, we must remain focused on the future, recommitting to initiatives aimed at keeping young people safe, alive and in pursuit of the positive youth outcomes they seek, lest our decades of work go up in smoke.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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