photo: Senor Codo via Flickr

According to the annual Monitoring the Future survey released today by the National Institutes of Health, marijuana use is up and alcohol use is down amongst America’s teens.

Although U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske has taken to the airwaves to tell us “we should be very concerned about these marijuana numbers,” those numbers might actually be indicative of progress.

Of course there are few (if any) people who think teenagers should be using marijuana or alcohol, and it would be wonderful if all teens chose to remain “drug free.”  But if they are going to use an intoxicating substance — and we all know many of them will — the fact is that they pose far less harm to themselves and to others if they choose to use marijuana instead of alcohol.

After all, every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far safer than alcohol for the user and society. Whereas alcohol contributes to overdose deaths, significant long-term health problems, serious injuries, and violent crimes, marijuana has never been found to contribute to such problems.  Thus, those teens choosing to use marijuana instead of alcohol are in fact making a safer choice.

Not surprisingly, the drug czar is singling out medical marijuana laws and the debate surrounding them as the be-all-end-all cause of teens’ ease in attitude toward marijuana.  This from a guy overseeing a major anti-marijuana ad campaign that has actually been found to increase the likelihood that those frequently exposed to the ads will experiment with marijuana.  And when’s the last time you heard him complain about all the TV ads and billboards — visible to young and older people alike — that tout beer and liquor as the key to a good time.  . . .

Perhaps Kerlikowske is right and the growing public debate about medical marijuana has eased some younger people’s attitudes toward marijuana.  But that would only be because they are now beginning to hear both sides of the story, as opposed to the one-sided propaganda and government misinformation they’ve been exposed to for years.  Assuming teenagers are not complete idiots — which the drug czar clearly seems to think they are — they are simply listening to the medical marijuana debate and garnering facts regarding the substance’s effects and the potential harms it poses.  They are then comparing them to the effects and harms of alcohol, the one other recreational intoxicant with which they are familiar.  Then, in light of their not being complete idiots, they are beginning to take the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol into consideration when choosing which they prefer to use.

For most it’s a no-brainer.  If they’re going to get intoxicated in some form, why not choose the less harmful of the two?  This is not necessarily to say they are making a good choice when they decide to use marijuana.  But it is to say they are making the safer choice, and that is certainly a step in the right direction.

Mason Tvert is the executive director of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) and coauthor of “Marijuana is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?”