2012-08-15 / Front Page

Marijuana use up among county teens

By Jim McConnell

The number of Chesterfield County eighth- and 12th-graders who reported using marijuana recently has increased by an average of nearly 9 percent over the last five years, according to a biannual survey conducted by the county’s Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) coalition.

A total of 3,724 county students voluntarily participated in the 2012 youth survey, which was conducted in February and March by SAFE, which has been working to combat drug abuse in the county since 1990. The students in the survey represent roughly 25 percent of the county’s student population in eighth, 10th and 12th grades.

The average increase of about 9 percent represents a sharp rise in marijuana use among eighth- and 12th-graders but little change in use of the drug among 10th-graders.

For example, the percentage of county eighth-graders who said they had used marijuana within the last 30 days doubled from 3.7 in 2007 to 7.4 in 2012. Among 12th-graders, the figure jumped from 20.1 percent in 2007 to 25.4 percent in 2012.

But among 10th-graders, the prevalence of marijuana use remained about the same. In 2007, 12.3 percent of 10th-graders said they had used marijuana in the last 30 days compared to 12.1 percent in 2012.

Wayne Frith, SAFE’s executive director, acknowledged last week that “myths about the drug make it difficult to get our message across.”

“There’s a perception among teens that marijuana isn’t as dangerous as other drugs,” he said. “Unfortunately, marijuana has changed and there are varieties now that are much more potent.”

Frith noted that a number of recent studies have shown marijuana use to be a significant health risk, not only because it’s a carcinogen, but because it can cause brain lesions and other long-term cognitive effects. There’s also been a strong indication that using marijuana can serve as a gateway to other drugs.

But that can be something of a mixed message for teenagers who have seen several states approve the distribution of marijuana for medicinal reasons and heard arguments in favor of legalizing the drug.

“As with everything, kids are learning their values from adults,” Frith said. “My concern is how we change values among adults so that community expectations are clear. If the community reflects values that say it’s kind of OK, attempts to inform kids about the dangers of substance abuse will fail.”

Another area of concern that emerged from the survey was that abuse of prescription stimulants by eighth- and 10th-graders doubled over the past two years.

But Frith was quick to point out that the total number of students who reported abusing stimulants within the last 30 days remains quite small – between 1 and 2 percent of eighth- and 10th-graders and well below 10 percent of seniors.

The stimulants abused by students, according to the survey, include diet pills, as well as medications prescribed for attention deficit order, such as Ritalin and Adderall.

The survey did not seek information on students’ motivation for using drugs or alcohol. But based on feedback from teens elsewhere in the country, stimulant abuse appears to be a result of students’ desire for “enhanced academic performance,” Frith said.

Frith believes that simply giving kids information and “expecting them to make correct decisions in an environment that encourages otherwise” makes about as much sense as “expecting fish that live in a polluted stream to be responsible for cleaning up the pollution.”

“Ultimately, [using stimulants is] not the right answer, but that’s a hard sell for teenagers,” he added. “We can tell them not to be so concerned about being successful that you’re willing to take these steps. At the same time, adults are always telling them to strive for success, and we as a culture say that kind of success is something to be valued.”

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