AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of legalizing marijuana pointed to Tuesday’s release of new data that indicate a markedly higher use of edible marijuana products among teenagers in states like Maine, where medical marijuana is legal, as proof that making pot more available to adults could lead to more abuse by adolescents.
New National Institute of Health data on teen substance abuse released Tuesday contained good news nearly across the board when it comes to teenagers’ abuse of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, which the study’s University of Michigan authors saw as resulting from successful prevention methods in recent years.
However, the study, which surveyed thousands of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders throughout the United States, appeared to indicate that teens in medical marijuana states use edible pot more than do teens elsewhere.
According to the study, 40 percent of 12th-graders in medical marijuana states who consumed marijuana in the past year said they did so by eating it, compared to 26 percent from the same age group in states where medical marijuana is not legal.
The same study found that teen pot use in medical marijuana states was slightly higher than in other states. About 35 percent of high school seniors in medical marijuana states said they had consumed marijuana in the past year, compared to 30 percent in other states. Those percentages align far more closely than 2013 data, which showed more than 40 percent of high school seniors in medical marijuana states reported smoking marijuana, compared to about 30 percent in non-medical marijuana states.
With advocates of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes gearing up for what they hope will be a 2016 statewide referendum, Scott Gagnon, a spokesman for Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, an organization that opposes marijuana legalization, cited the data as cause for concern.
“We definitely look at many of these results as positive, but the edible marijuana piece sticks out a little bit,” said Gagnon. “We kind of look at it as a red flag. We as an organization will be looking at it in the future to see if it becomes a trend. We don’t look at this as a declarative issue but there are a lot of questions that we need to ask and look into.”
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is advocating for legalization in Maine, said a slight overall decrease in marijuana use shown in the survey shows that the public is “wising up.”
“There has been more public dialogue about marijuana over the past year than any 12-month period in history,” said Tvert in a prepared statement. “States around the country are making marijuana legal for adults, establishing medical marijuana programs and decriminalizing marijuana possession, and the sky is not falling. The debate is not resulting in more marijuana use among young people, but it is resulting in more sensible marijuana laws.”
Dr. Lloyd D. Johnston of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, who was the principal investigator for the study, said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday that the study did not further try to determine whether teen pot use in medical marijuana states was higher than in other states. In addition, there was no state-level data immediately available.
“Maybe it’s just easier to be handling edible marijuana products and cooking them because there’s less likelihood of being turned in,” said Johnston. “We haven’t done an extensive exploration of the differences between regular states and medical marijuana states.”
However, Johnston and others said that any increase in the use of edible marijuana is troubling because there is no way for a user to know how much pot is in a food product and it takes up to an hour for the effects to kick in, as opposed to an almost instant high that pot smokers experience. That means it’s harder for a user to regulate how much of the drug he is taking in, compared to smoking a joint or a pipe.
One other dark spot in the otherwise positive study was the use of e-cigarettes, which are electronic devices that deliver nicotine through vapor as opposed to smoke, among teens. The study found that the use of e-cigarettes was climbing at all surveyed grade levels, topping out at above 17 percent for high school seniors. Alarmingly, only about 14 percent of high school seniors view regular e-cigarette use as harmful, though Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said e-cigarettes are just as addictive as regular cigarettes and may contain just as many toxins.
The study’s other findings included the following:
— Alcohol use continued a decline that has gone on for several years, with 12th-grade past-month use dropping from near 44 percent in 2009 to 37 percent in 2014. There was also a significant drop in binge drinking in 2014 among high school seniors, from a peak of 32 percent in 1998 to under 20 percent in 2014.
— Cigarette smoking by teens has decreased by nearly 50 percent in the past five years and was found to be at the lowest rate in the survey’s history. About 6.7 percent of high school seniors reported smoking cigarettes daily, down from 8.5 percent in 2013.
— Overall marijuana use did not increase among teens, despite indications in the study that there has been a significant softening of perceived risks associated with marijuana use. Past-month marijuana use in 2015 was at 6.5 percent for eighth-graders, 16.6 percent for 10th-graders and 21 percent for 12th-graders. However, marijuana use continues to exceed cigarette use among teens.
— Illicit drug use among teens has declined slowly over the past 20 years, though 27 percent of the survey respondents said they had tried them in the past year. Ecstasy and heroin use among teens continued to decline and both were in the low single digits, even though heroin use among adults 26 and older is climbing.
— There has been a decline in the use of K2, also known as Spice, which is a synthetic marijuana product that has been outlawed in Maine and several other states. Only 5.8 percent of high school seniors said they used K2 in the past year, compared to 11.3 percent in 2012, which was the first year this survey addressed it.
— The use of bath salts, another formerly legal substance now outlawed in Maine, continued to decline since 2012 and was in the low single digits, percentage-wise, in the survey.