Buried in the latest Monitoring the Future survey -- the major annual, federally funded survey of teen drug use -- is an astonishing finding: More 10th-graders now smoke marijuana than smoke cigarettes. Strangely, in announcing the results, White House drug czar John Walters failed to mention this evidence that our current drug policies constitute an utter train wreck.
In the just-released survey, 13.8 percent of 10th-graders reported smoking marijuana in the past 30 days (considered "current use" by researchers), while just 12.3 percent smoked cigarettes. For eighth and 12th grades, cigarette use still exceeded marijuana, but the gap narrowed to insignificance.
This year, current and past-year marijuana use increased for eighth- and 12th-graders and declined for 10th-graders, but none of the changes were large or statistically significant. In contrast, current cigarette smoking did drop significantly for 10th-graders. Changes for most other drugs were marginal, except for a significant increase in methamphetamine use among 10th-graders.
The Associated Press reported, "[T]he White House says the sustained trend line is the key," and that is indeed true. Small fluctuations from year to year prove little. We need to look at longer-term trends to get any sense of whether our policies are having an impact.
Unfortunately, the long-term news is devastating for Walters and others wedded to the current, prohibition-based approach to marijuana.
The new survey helpfully provides data going back to 1991, and since then, the rate of current marijuana use has nearly doubled among eighth-graders, from 3.2 percent to 5.8 percent. Large increases also occurred among 10th- and 12th-graders. During that same period, cigarette use dropped like a rock, with current cigarette smoking dropping from 14.3 percent to 6.8 percent among eighth-graders and dramatic drops in the older grades as well.
And that leaves us in the amazing situation of having as many teens now smoking marijuana as cigarettes.
Bizarrely, Walters touts the new results as proof that his policies are working, saying, "What we see here is a very good trend for the youth of the country." Walters has been a hard-liner when it comes to marijuana, insisting that even modest reforms in marijuana laws affecting adults would lead to an explosion of use among youth.
In fact, what the data show is that prohibition for adults is neither necessary nor effective at reducing use among kids. Last year, over 775,000 Americans were arrested for possession of marijuana while zero were arrested for possession of cigarettes. And yet it's teen cigarette use that's dropping.
And we know why, or at least a big part of why. A report issued in June by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services documented a nearly 75 percent drop in illegal cigarette sales to minors from 1997 to 2007.
That sort of progress is possible because legal cigarette vendors are regulated. They can and do face fines, or even loss of their license to operate, if they sell to kids. But prohibition guarantees we have no such control over marijuana.
Addicts commonly rationalize and excuse destructive behavior rather than recognize that their addiction has gotten out of control. By that standard, John Walters is an addict, and his drug is prohibition.
Walters will be gone soon with the rest of the Bush administration. We can only hope that the incoming Obama administration will do an honest appraisal of our current anti-drug efforts and break Washington's addiction to failed policies.
By Aaron Houston
Posted December 18, 2008