Increased Drug Use Fuels Debate Over Legalization

Illegal drug use is higher than it has been in decades, according to a federal report out today. Some officials say the growing number of states approving medical marijuana is sending kids the wrong message that smoking pot is not so harmful.

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Illegal drug use in the U.S. is up to the highest level in nearly a decade, according to a government report out today. Officials say more people are using methamphetamine and ecstasy. And the most commonly abused drug, marijuana, is now even more common.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Officials say marijuana use is changing because public attitudes are changing to the point where most young people today see pot as basically harmless.

Ms. HEATHER TURNER (Student, UCLA): If anything, it's just a stress reducer. It's better than smoking a cigarette or having a drink.

SMITH: Heather Turner is a student at UCLA who's taking this semester off. Like many on campus, she says she sees pot as having little or no downside.

Ms. TURNER: It's really tremendous what it can do for people, you know, for everything from like, migraines to menstrual cramps, to people going through chemotherapy and stuff.

SMITH: Officials call that view disturbing but not surprising as more states legalize medical marijuana use and talk about decriminalizing it altogether. Gil Kerlikowski, from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says kids are getting the message that smoking pot is totally safe and harmless.

Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKI (Office of National Drug Control Policy): What we need to do is to understand that marijuana does have harms. It is not a harmless drug.

SMITH: But advocates of legalizing marijuana insist the news that marijuana use is up only goes to show that cracking down on users doesn't work.

Mr. MIKE MENO (Marijuana Policy Project): The government's been sending the wrong message to people for decades by classifying marijuana alongside drugs like heroin and LSD. And they should just give it up.

SMITH: That's Mike Meno with the Marijuana Policy Project, that supports making pot totally legal - as a ballot question in California this year would do. He says marijuana use isn't increasing because people see it as less harmful but rather, because the sale of marijuana is uncontrolled and unregulated.

Mr. MENO: We need to apply the same type of sensible regulations that we do to alcohol and tobacco, two things that you need an ID to buy, that you need to be a licensed vendor to sell. Drug dealers who sell marijuana do not check IDs.

SMITH: Of course, kids do find ways around those restrictions, but today's study shows no increase in underage drinking, even as other drugs are up. Methamphetamines and ecstasy, that had been declining or flat for years, jumped 60 and 37 percent, respectively.

Mr. PETER DELANEY (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality): You know, I think that we often start making headway and doing good on this problem, and then we kind of take our eyes off the ball.

SMITH: Peter Delaney is director of the office that did the research at the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. He says there needs to be more effort to counter the message that marijuana is not harmful. But he says public health officials also need to redefine the question of what harm means.

Mr. DELANEY: When I hear kids on campuses say hey, it's only pot, I'm saying, what's your grades like? You know, do you go to class? We have to stop having a relativistic discussion - saying oh, it's not harmful; please, it's not like heroin - and start having a kind of a clear discussion of, this is what this one this one does; this is what that one does. Drug use, it does impact on you.

SMITH: Sadly, officials say there is one number in their survey that hasn't changed: The number of people who are getting treatment for drug abuse is still just about a tenth of those who need it.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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