Marijuana use up, tobacco use down among teens

It’s late Saturday night. A group of friends order a pizza and gather on a screened porch to light up. It isn’t tobacco.

They use a bubbler, a pipe with a water chamber, which is supposed to make the effects of the marijuana last longer.

These friends are not isolated cases. A May 2012 study by the Partnership at found that 27 percent of teenagers nationwide said they used marijuana within the previous month, a 42 percent increase from 2008. Nine percent of teens said they used marijuana 20 or more times the previous month, up 80 percent.

This sharp rise comes at a time when tobacco use among teens is waning. “It’s consistent with the whole social disapproval of cigarette smoking,” said Sean Clarkin, director of programs at the Partnership, formerly the Partnership for Drug-Free America, which works to support families of children who use drugs. “Smoking has become less cool because people know it can hurt other individuals. But marijuana is more normalized. It’s just part of many kids’ everyday existence.”

Parents — often former pot smokers themselves — are sometimes challenged by children who maintain that marijuana is safer and less noxious than tobacco or alcohol, let alone stronger drugs like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.

Experts say marijuana’s increasingly benign reputation is undeserved.

Some teenagers, and even some parents, don’t want to talk about the risks of respiratory and brain damage, never mind addiction, said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director for Hazelden youth services. New research has found IQ reductions among teens that use marijuana 20 or more times a month, he said.

“The issue is not whether marijuana is better or worse than cigarettes or alcohol or some other drug,” he said. “That’s a little like asking, ‘Which cancer is the best one to have?’ How about choosing no cancer?”

“The thing is, almost no kid who’s using thinks it’s a problem,” Lee added.

The relationship between marijuana smoking and lung cancer is hotly debated, with opinions running the gamut from claims of a direct link to arguments that marijuana use actually can retard lung cancer.

“Marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website. “Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which further increases the lungs’ exposure to carcinogenic smoke.”

On the other hand, Harvard University researchers found that in mice with lung cancer, exposure to the main active ingredient in pot — delta-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC — reduced tumor growth by 50 percent. Researchers at UCLA concluded that research about marijuana use and cancer in humans was inconsistent at this point.

That doesn’t mean there are no lung-related health risks. Yale University researchers compared data from several studies on the effects of marijuana and tobacco smoking, and discovered an “increased risk of many of the same respiratory problems,” including shortness of breath, wheezing and chronic bronchitis.

When William Moyers, vice president of community affairs at Hazelden, talks to teenagers about marijuana — including his own three children — “I don’t tell them never to use, although I do point out that it’s illegal. I tell them to look at me — look at their families — to see what can happen.”

Son of journalist Bill Moyers, he first toked up at about age 15, mainly on weekends. At 18 he began using alcohol legally. Then came more experimentation and he became addicted to crack cocaine.

“I’m 53 and I’ve been sober for 18 years,” Moyers said. “Nobody starts out to be an addict — and most people who use marijuana or alcohol won’t become dependent. But some will.”

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