The Real Reason Teens are Choosing Marijuana Over Cigarettes

June 11th 2015

Reina Gattuso

Marijuana users rejoiced last week week when, in what has been called the “marijuana vote-a-rama,” the House voted on three laws that prevent the Department of Justice from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized weed.

Yet, with the legal system, public health research, and general messaging lagging behind public opinion, what does the march toward legalization mean for young people -- the group most likely to smoke pot?

Today, more teens are smoking marijuana than tobacco.

In the Center for Disease Control’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, students were more likely to report current marijuana use than cigarette smoking, with 23.4 percent of students reporting they had smoked marijuana in the last 30 days, as compared to only 15.7 percent of teens who had smoked cigarettes. This reflects a decades-long decline in cigarette-smoking, while marijuana use has remained more or less steady.

Some experts argue that marijuana is actually safer for teens than tobacco or alcohol. Yet laws stifling research on marijuana use, and public health campaigns geared toward prohibition rather than regulation leave teens without accurate, balanced information. And youth who smoke up continue to risk harsh prison sentences. 

Here’s what you really need to know about teens and weed.

What really are the health effects of weed?

Advocates and opponents of decriminalization agree on one (and probably only one) thing: We don’t quite know.

While there is some available research on marijuana use, the drug’s classification by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I controlled substance -- meaning it allegedly has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” -- stunts research. 

“It’s very, very, very difficult to do any meaningful gold standard research,” Jahan Marcu, Senior Science Advisor at Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group said in a phone interview with ATTN:. “If this was a car, you could study the engine, and you could study the seats and you could study the steering wheel, but you can’t study the car itself.”

What research we do have shows both risks and benefits.

While some studies suggest that smoking marijuana can actually be worse for lungs than cigarettes, others show occasional marijuana use does not increase lung cancer risk at all.

As far as addictiveness, while some people struggle with marijuana dependency, the drug is considered less addictive than either alcohol or tobacco. And marijuana is over 100 times less toxic than alcohol, with no known deaths due to smoking marijuana. 

A number of studies have found negative neurological effects from marijuana particularly for teens, though others have found that neurological effects fade when use is discontinued. And as we’ve reported, marijuana can even have a positive mental health effect, helping those with anxiety, PTSD, and depression.

And marijuana’s medical benefits have even been acknowledged by the surgeon general. It’s a proven appetite stimulant for those suffering with AIDS and and anti-nausea drug for cancer patients, and has been shown to dramatically relieve symptoms in kids with severe seizure disorders

What does decriminalization mean for teens?

When it comes to youth incarceration, marijuana legalization is a major social justice issue.

In the past ten years, over seven million people were arrested for pot -- and most of those people only possessed small amounts. What’s more, those arrested -- 86 percent in Colorado alone -- were under 34. A 2012 report done by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project found that "[i]n the last decade, Colorado arrested Latinos for marijuana possession at 1.5 times the rate of whites, and arrested blacks at 3.1 times the rate of whites."

Marijuana arrests can lead to hefty fines or outrageous jail sentences. Those convicted of first possession charges may face maximum fines of $1,000 and jail time of up to one year, on the federal level alone.Those convicted of selling or growing marijuana in large quantities may face up to life in prison. Draconian jail sentences particularly devastate low-income communities and communities of color. 

Young people with marijuana arrests on their records often find it more difficult to find jobs and housing, and may be further embroiled in the prison system. Yet marijuana decriminalization has been found to substantially cut down on youth arrests.

So why have anti-marijuana public health campaigns done so poorly at keeping teens away from pot?

In a word: Prohibition.

“The drug education and prevention strategies they’re exposed to, usually school-based curriculum, don’t work, ” said Jerry Otero, Youth Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a phone interview with ATTN: 

“One thing that kids don’t get is balanced education and a balanced view of marijuana. It’s completely vilified, which is unusual because alcohol by far is more widely used and much more dangerous for you,” Otero said.

Mason Tvert, Communications Director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said that marijuana prohibition actually exposes teens to more dangers than legalization would. 

“We’re forcing teens and adults into an underground market where there are other illegal products available,” Tvert said in a phone interview with ATTN:. “It’s time we stop spending our resources and time on preventing adults from accessing marijuana and start focusing on preventing teens.”

In a prevention landscape dominated by prohibition, it’s next to impossible for teens to access accurate, balanced information about marijuana risks and benefits. 

“Kids are cynical,” Otero said. “The messages they get about marijuana’s dangers fly in the face of the their own experiences.”

What does this mean?

We’re left with a conundrum that’s been dubbed the “catch-22 of marijuana research”: Opponents of marijuana legalization call for more of the very research that the status quo of marijuana prohibition prevents. Meanwhile, young people continue to be criminalized for using a drug they have little accurate information about in the first place.

To bridge the gap, we need to align policy -- and public health messaging -- with the reality of teen use.