The latest data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health are out for 2012 and if you believe the headlines, medical marijuana and marijuana legalization are leading to a massive increase if marijuana use. The problem is some in the media are burying exactly who is using more marijuana: older adults. Here are a few examples of mainstream media coverage:
- CBS News warns "New U.S. drug survey: Marijuana and heroin increasing".
- US News & World Report reported, "Marijuana Use Creeping Higher, Drug Survey Finds".
- CBS's Minneapolis affiliate proclaimed, "Nat'l Survey Finds Marijuana Use Increasing Steadily".
- USA Today, in a story reprinted by Detroit Free-Press, Columbia, South Carolina's CBS affiliate and others, headlined, "More Americans are using marijuana".
There's nothing misleading about these headlines; they are absolutely true. According to the latest data, among Americans aged 12 and older, almost four million more have tried marijuana, almost two million more are using annually, and almost eight-hundred thousand more are using monthly. Lifetime use has risen from 41.9% to 42.8% of the population, annual use rose from 11.5% to 12.1%, and monthly use rose from 7.0% to 7.3%.
However, when you break down the numbers by demographics, a far more newsworthy fact emerges: use by teenagers and young adults up to age 25 is going down, while use among those 26 and older is rising, especially use among those 50 and older.
Lifetime, annual, and monthly use of marijuana declined for kids aged 12-17, even as opponents of legalization have warned that loosening of marijuana prohibition would be a disaster with increased use and addiction for children. Among all racial and ethnic categories, marijuana use is down. However, while overall monthly use of marijuana among kids aged 12-17 dropped from 7.9% to 7.2%, it is noteworthy that monthly use among 12-17-year-old girls rose from 6.7% to 7.0%.
The stories listed above either buried this fact or failed to mention it altogether. In Story #1, mention of the lower youth rates doesn't appear until paragraph 6, and is quickly followed up with statements from opponents of legalization about the debunked eight-point drop in IQ for adolescents who smoke pot. In Story #2, again it is paragraph 6 before a statement from Marijuana Policy Project alerts the reader to the lower youth stats. In the other stories, there is no mention of the lower youth rates, and Story #3 is nothing but "What About the Children?!?" from paragraph 6 on.
Not all media outlets buried the lower youth figures, however. WTOP-FM explained that "Youth substance abuse down; heroin abuse climbs". The best report comes from ABC News in "Drug Use Drops for America's Youth, Rises in the Over 50 Crowd":
Drug use among America's youth is dropping, but it's booming among people over 50, a U.S. government survey released Wednesday shows.
Last year, the rate of illicit drug use among children and teenagers 12 to 17 years old dropped to 9.5 percent, down from 11.6 percent a decade earlier, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) latest national survey.
Meanwhile, illicit drug use among adults 50 to 64 years old has increased in the past decade.
Specifically, illicit drug use among adults 50 to 54 has more than doubled since 2002, reaching 7.2 percent last year. For people 55 to 59, such drug use has more than tripled, reaching 6.6 percent last year.
As for young adults - those 18 to 25 years old - rates of illicit drug use have remained somewhat steady over recent years, with a slight increase in marijuana use, according to the survey.
While the ABC story refers to "illicit drug use", it makes clear the fact that marijuana is the most-used illicit drug. Breaking down the numbers for marijuana alone, we find that while annual marijuana use increased for young adults aged 18-25 from 30.8% to 31.5%, monthly use of marijuana was down from 19.0% to 18.7%.
Among the people aged 26 and older is where we find the increase in marijuana use. Almost one-and-a-half million more people in that age group used marijuana in 2012 than in 2011, and one million more used monthly. A half-million more adults with full-time employment used marijuana over the last year. Past year use rose from 7.9% to 8.6% and past month use rose from 4.8% to 5.3%.
Lowering marijuana use by teenagers is something everyone debating the marijuana issue would agree is good. As for rising adult rates, that cannot be judged without determining whether harm has increased or decreased. For example, have more adults swapped marijuana for alcohol, and have binge drinking, drunk driving, and liver disease rates decreased as a result? Are more adults age 50 and older swapping out Vicodin, Ambien, and Xanax for marijuana and thereby lowering adverse effects from those drugs? Are more adults using marijuana experiencing less stress, fewer aches and pains, and better quality of life? As much as our media frets about marijuana and the children, you'd think fewer kids smoking pot would have been their headline.