Pot is everywhere these days, and by the looks of it, it’s all good. If you believe the hype, pot can take away anxiety, help you drive better and cure cancer. Not a bad set of attributes, right? But just as consuming large quantities of alcohol makes us skinnier, funnier and better looking, there’s no merit to the argument. Just as few drinks allow me to believe I’ve morphed into Sophia Vergara, the painful lack of physical resemblance (and attendant paparazzi) is, sadly, evidence to the contrary. It’s the same with marijuana, yet the conversation so far has been mostly about its purported benefits, with very little or no scientific fact about the harms of the drug or the consequences of making it more available.
“Everybody’s doing it”
When my teenage self wanted to do something “everybody else” was doing, my mother would roll out one of those momisms that drives kids crazy: “If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” What she meant to say is, “If a few of your friends jumped off the cliff, would you?”
We tend to believe that the rest of the world operates the same way our own personal hemisphere does. Research with youth refutes this notion: In general, they’re pretty good judges of their friends’ substance use, but they are far less accurate at predicting use among peers not in their social circle. This skewed perception gets articulated as “everybody’s doing it,” a rationalization that crops up in nearly every conversation I have with nearly every person I engage on the issue of marijuana use.
I recently met with a local public official to understand his position on marijuana legalization, which is opposite of mine. In the course of the conversation, he boldly stated, “You know your son [who is 13] is going to smoke marijuana.” I was taken aback. Not only did his assertion tap into my deepest fear as a mother – that no matter what I did, drug use was inevitable – it’s patently false. The data tells the story.
The Monitoring the Future study, which for 30 years has been taking the pulse of kids and pot (among other things), finds that about 22% of high school seniors use marijuana. In our state, the Florida Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance found 25%. Stated another way, more than 75% of our kids don’t smoke pot (although that number is rising). For adults, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 5.3% of people age 26 and over smoke it.
FACT: No matter if you’re talking about kids or adult, everybody is definitely NOT doing it. In fact, if I’m diligent about educating my kids and engaged in their lives and I’m finding alternative activities for them and I’m just a little bit lucky, my kids will end up in the 75% that chooses more positive ways to spend their time.
We’ve heard the adage ‘You are your friends,’ but the real truth is that we are the result of our choices, and what’s happening around us shapes the range of possible options we’re likely to choose from. Go to the movies, watch the nightly news or listen to your favorite song, and it’s easy to believe that marijuana is everywhere, that it’s a normal, accepted part of life. This perceived ubiquity reinforces the erroneous notion that everyone’s doing it. A therapist I know calls this disconnect between opinion and fact the difference between what you feel and what you know. When did you last see a cigarette commercial on television or watch a movie where everybody smoked? Thanks in large part to dawning awareness of their danger to health, cigarettes aren’t nearly as mainstream as in the days when every restaurant, airplane or office building allowed smokers to light up at will. Cigarettes haven’t gone away, and the companies that produce them are still flourishing. There’s still plenty of demand (though less than ever) and plenty of supply, so what’s different?
What changed about cigarettes is the social norm – a collective agreement about what’s acceptable behavior. At some point, we as a country decided that the body of scientific evidence was compelling enough to make smoking an undesirable activity and created policies that restricted access for minors, generated awareness about the health effects of smoking and levied penalties on the companies that knowingly perpetuated the greatest public health disaster in our country’s history.
With marijuana, the norm is changing — but for the worse. This in spite of – rather than in response to – the science. Today, more of our 8th, 10th and 12th graders smoke marijuana than cigarettes, and a record and growing number of them believe marijuana is harmless. That’s particularly troubling since perception of harm is a strong deterrent for a significant number of kids. Looking at trends since the 1970s, when the perception of harm took a dive, upticks in use quickly followed.
Even those who want a commercialized pot industry similar to alcohol say they don’t want more kids to use the stuff, but what we know from studying alcohol use over the past four decades is that the more it’s made available, the more kids will get their hands on it. And the more that happens, the more it perpetuates the “everybody’s doing it” perception. The more it plays on what we feel versus what we know. And our history with Big Tobacco tells us clearly where that path leads.
To do some research on your own, visit www.unmaskingmarijuana.org or www.dontletfloridagotopot.com. Remember that the source counts. Creating a scientific body of evidence requires rigorous study under tightly controlled conditions, and much of the marijuana “benefits” dialogue isn’t built around real science.
Margaret Sotham is the director of the South Miami Drug-Free Coalition, the county-wide coalition spokesperson on marijuana, and a mom of two.