Teens are “just saying no” to alcohol, cigarettes and other dangerous drugs in record numbers. Yet the Drug Czar and the mainstream media only want to talk about pot.

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That’s the take-home message from the findings of the 2011 “Monitoring the Future” study. The survey, first instituted in 1975, annually polls the self-reported use of various licit and illicit substances by junior high and high school students in the US. This year, some 47,000 teens participated in the study. Their responses indicate that teens are becoming far wiser about the comparative dangers of drugs than many of their elders wish to credit.

This year’s survey reported that teen use of alcohol and tobacco are approaching historic lows. Daily use of tobacco by adolescents is down 50 percent compared to the mid-1990s. Among high school seniors, the percentage of teens that admit to having engaged in binge drinking is half of what it was in the early 1980s. Among all junior high and high school students, lifetime use of alcohol – as well as teens’ monthly and annual use of booze – are at record lows over the life of the study.

Adolescents’ self-reported use of a number of additional hazardous substances has also continued its progressive decline. For instance, the use of cocaine is down more than 50 percent from its earlier peak. Teens’ consumption of inhalants and crack cocaine has also fallen steadily. Ditto for adolescents’ self-reported use of heroin, anabolic steroids, tranquilizers, even cough and cold medications. In fact, the study’s authors conclude that teen use of any illicit substance other than marijuana either went down or held steady during the past year.

But if you think that this overall decline in teen drug use would provide prohibitionists or the mainstream media with a reason to celebrate, think again. Here’s a sampling of the headlines that greeted the study’s release: “Marijuana Use Growing Among Teenagers” (The New York Times); “Marijuana Use Among Teens at Highest Level in 30 Years” (The Los Angeles Weekly); “Why Teens Need to Know Risks of Marijuana” (from the editorial board of The Christian Science Monitor). Also weighing in was the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which publicly called the report’s findings “depressing.”

By contrast, the year-to-year data presented in the actual study was far less sensational. “Marijuana use continued to rise among 10th and 12th graders this year for all prevalence periods (lifetime, past year, past 30 days, and daily use in the past 30 days),” the authors noted in a press release, before adding an important caveat: “No one of these changes was large enough to be statistically significant, but they all continue the pattern of a gradual rise…for the fourth straight year – a sharp contrast to the considerable decline that had occurred in the preceding decade.”

Predictably, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske blamed this four-year “gradual rise” – highlighted by the finding that a greater percentage of high school seniors (6.6 percent) now report consuming cannabis daily than at any time since the 1980s – on anything but the problematic prohibitionist policies that he favors. “The federal drug czar said he believed the increasing prevalence of medicinal marijuana was a factor in the uptick,” reported the Times. Kerlikowske himself added: “These last couple years, the amount of attention that’s been given to medical marijuana has been huge. And when I’ve done focus groups with high school students in states where medical marijuana is legal, they say, ‘Well, if it’s called medicine and it’s given to patients by caregivers, then that’s really the wrong message for us as high school students.’”

Of course, if Kerlikowske’s allegations were to hold any weight whatsoever, the self-reported spike in teen use would have started nearly a decade earlier, when the nationwide public debate over medical pot began in earnest. Of the 16 states that have passed medical cannabis laws, 10 did so between 1996 and 2006, a period of time when adolescents’ year-by-year pot use fell dramatically. In fact, since 2008, only two states – Michigan in 2008 and Arizona in 2010 – have even enacted medical cannabis laws. (Similar laws passed in Delaware, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have yet to be implemented.)

The “Monitoring the Future” study posed a different reason for the recent upswing: “One possible explanation for the resurgence in marijuana use is that in recent years, fewer teens report seeing much danger associated with its use, even with regular use…Teens’ disapproval of marijuana use also has fallen during the past three or four years, suggesting a lowering of peer norms against use.”

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The authors are correct that teens’ views regarding the “perceived risk” of cannabis use has diminished in recent years. Since 2008, the percentage of high school seniors who believe that a “great risk” is associated with cannabis use dropped from an estimated 50 percent to just below 45 percent. However, this downward trend actually began in the early 1990s, when some 80 percent of seniors perceived such a risk – and, curiously, even as the “perceived risk” among teens declined in the 1990s and throughout most of 2000, adolescent rates of marijuana use also fell, raising doubts as to the credibility of the investigators’ theory.

Of course, the dirty little secret that neither the Drug Czar nor the “Monitoring the Future” investigators wish to consider is the likelihood that more and more teens now regard other drugs – including alcohol and tobacco – as posing a greater risk than cannabis. Why? Because, truth be told, they don’t want to. Cigarettes are highly addictive and can cause cancer. Alcohol is toxic and can cause death by overdose. The use of cocaine and heroin can cause respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. By contrast, marijuana is mildly mood-altering yet relatively benign. It appears that more and more teens are simply (and reasonably) becoming aware of this fact.

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“The study’s own data proves what NIDA and other Drug War institutions incessantly deny: Knowledge – even if it shows the benefits of a drug – matters,” wrote alternet.org columnist Kristen Gwynne in her own summary of the “Monitoring the Future” report. “Give young people accurate information, and they will use it to make better decisions that result in less harm to themselves, because teens, like everybody else, do not actually want to get hurt or become addicts.”

This is not to say that parents or the general public ought to be lauding the recent rise in teen pot use. There are potential risks associated with cannabis, some of which may be exacerbated the earlier one begins using it. However, there’s no doubt these risks are far less severe than those associated with most, if not all, other illicit (and even licit) drugs. America’s teens, as well as a majority of the public, now appear to readily understand this fact. So why doesn’t the Drug Czar?

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML.