Study Focuses on Youth Pot Use, Should Focus on Pill Popping Instead

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The Prevention Resource Center at the Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston has released its annual Regional Needs Assessment, which gathers a ton of data and compiles it to identify everything you need to know about substance abuse.

The study shines a light on what's going on in our area (Region 6, officially), which includes data compiled from Harris and 12 other counties, with a focus on the adolescent population in Houston.

While it's certainly beneficial to have data on adolescent drug use, what's unusual is how focused on pot the study appears to be. Buried under some fear-mongering statistics about weed -- juveniles are most often arrested for weed! synthetic marijuana may fool kids! -- there are some seriously harrowing statistics on alcohol and prescription pill use among kids in the Houston area.

Let's read between the lines, shall we?

  • 21 percent of high school students surveyed in Houston reported having their first drink of alcohol before age 13. That's compared to 12.7 percent of high school students in Houston who reported having tried marijuana before age 13.
  • 63 percent of high school students in Houston reported having tried alcohol at least once, compared 43.6% who say they've tried marijuana at least once -- about the same percentage of students who reported they've smoked a cigarette at least once in their lives.
  • 31 percent of high school students in Houston admitted to having at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days, while 23 percent admitted to smoking pot in the past 30 days.
  • So not only are there more kids drinking at a very early age than smoking pot, the survey shows there's a higher alcohol-abuse rate overall with the students surveyed. Still, we get passages about the "widespread" marijuana issue among teens like this:

    "Although the medicinal use of marijuana has been legalized in a small number of states, and the recreational use of marijuana in only two states, the debates surrounding the legalization of marijuana has become widespread. As a result, many adolescents perceive marijuana use as "natural" or "medicinal." Therefore, adolescents see little harm in marijuana use, according to our research participants.

    Stakeholders suggest that this is a dangerous presumption for adolescents because they are not aware of the danger posed by various synthetic mixtures of marijuana that are potentially lethal.

    Additionally, adolescents appear to be taking even greater risk when mixing marijuana with other substances. It has been common for adolescents to mix marijuana with alcohol and tobacco. However, the combinations are becoming more intense, with adolescents mixing marijuana with other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines."

    As far as an alarming number of kids who see marijuana as "natural" and "medicinal" because pot reform laws are starting to hit other states, that's not entirely borne out by the survey's own results. Overall, high school students surveyed thought pot was more dangerous than alcohol -- 58 percent called marijuana "very dangerous" versus 50 percent for alcohol.

    And the prescription-drug stats for teens buried in the report are even more alarming.

    • In 2011 (the most recent year in which statistics were pulled from), 92 percent of adolescent drug overdoses in Region 6 were attributed to prescription narcotics, and one was attributed to heroin. None were from weed.
    • Statewide, about 44 percent of people ages 12 and older have reported using prescription painkillers that were not prescribed to them in order to feel the effects of the drug. In Region 6, our region, that number is about 40 percent.
    • About 17.4 percent of high school students in Region 6 reported taking a prescription drug without a doctor's prescription (such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Codeine, Adderall, Ritalin, or Xanax) one or more times in their life. We don't know how frequently these kids are popping pills (say, have they taken some in the past 30 days?) because, for whatever reason, that question wasn't included in the recent survey. You know, even thought those drugs account for 92 percent of adolescent drug overdoses in the region.

    And that's about it. Those are all the stats you get for prescription pills, which caused almost all of the drug overdose deaths in Region 6, and are such a problem that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has named prescription pill abuse a national epidemic.

    They did make sure to throw this in all at once, though:

    According to data collected through interviews and focus groups, prescription drugs are a commonly used drug among adolescents, mostly because they are accessible through parents and friends. NSDUH's report that 40.7 percent of Region 6 residents ages 12 and older have used prescription drugs recreationally also reflects commonality of misuse and probable ease of accessibility.

    One trend that was discussed in focus groups are parties in which each adolescent brings any type of prescription drug, the pills are pooled and mixed together, and poured into shot glasses. Each guest at the party is given a shot glass with mixed pills. The adolescents perceive that there is little risk in taking these pills in combination.

    So according to this study, kids are throwing a ton of random pills in shot glasses and taking them at parties, with no frigging idea what they're ingesting. Yet this study seems more focused on how cannabis reform might be changing students' "perceptions" on the dangers of pot use.

    No one is insinuating that teenagers should be getting high on cannabis -- studies have shown it can have some detrimental effects on teens, despite its legitimate medical uses -- but perhaps it's time to broaden our focus when compiling these studies.

    Consider this recent University College of London study showing heavy marijuana use had little to no impact on the IQs of students studied over a period of several years. By contrast, the researchers wrote, "alcohol use was found to be strongly associated with IQ decline."

    In a press release, lead author of that study Claire Mokrysz noted that "this is a potentially important public health message -- the belief that cannabis is particularly harmful may detract focus from and awareness of other potentially harmful behaviours."

    Sounds about right.

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