When he was 13, Chris Leibowitz was nervous about trying drugs. But when friends told him marijuana was "natural" and cocaine was cool, he just said, "Yes, I'll take it."
Today, at age 25, employed and in school, he is "clean" after years of drug addiction and stints in jail.
"I'm not saying I am a victim of marijuana I chose what I chose," Mr. Leibowitz said Wednesday at the release of the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey on substance abuse among U.S. high-school students.
But without those early experiences with marijuana, "I would have never gone from playing sports to injecting heroin," he said. "That never would have happened."
The 2012 MTF survey found that 6.5 percent of high-school seniors smoked pot every day, a significant increase over the 5.1 percent of five years ago.
That is worrisome, said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. People who were heavy marijuana users in their teens show signs of persistent cognitive impairment, and even have declines in their IQ, she said, citing new research.
Another disturbing trend is that teen perceptions about marijuana are changing: Only 44 percent of high-school seniors saw "great risk" in using marijuana regularly — a steep decline from the early 1990s when nearly 80 percent of 12th graders believed it was unhealthy.
This erosion of concern about the ills of marijuana will not be helped by laws that permit marijuana use for medical reasons — as is the case in 18 states and the District — or new laws in Colorado and Washington state that permit adults to use small amounts for private, "recreational" purposes, officials said.
"The more you make a drug available, the higher the number of people that are going to be exposed to it," said Dr. Volkow. Also, if states legalize certain marijuana use, "that deterrent is no longer present," she said.
Federal law prohibits the growing, selling or possession of marijuana, and questions have been raised about how pot users will be treated under conflicting law.
President Obama, who used marijuana in high school and college, said recently that federal authorities have "bigger fish to fry" than pursue legal pot users.
Teen marijuana use "remains at unacceptable levels," R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Wednesday. "Now more than ever we need parents and other adult influencers to step up and have direct conversations with young people about the importance of making healthy decisions. Their futures depend on it," he said.
The 2012 MTF survey, which is drawn from some 45,500 students in 395 public and private schools, had several positive findings: Teen drinking was at historical lows, with 11 percent of eighth graders, 28 percent of 10th graders and 42 percent of 12th graders saying they had drunk alcohol in the last month.
A similar picture was seen in past-month cigarette smoking: Around 5 percent of eighth graders, 11 percent of 10th graders and 17 percent of 12th graders said they had smoked in the last 30 days.
When marijuana use was omitted, use of other illicit drugs was at relatively low levels: Around 6 percent of eighth graders, 11 percent of 10th graders and 17 percent of 12th graders said they used an illicit drug in the last year.
To researchers' relief, a very small portion of students — 1 percent or less — reported using "bath salts," i.e., cheap powders that are sold online or in "head shops" that can act as powerful stimulants if ingested.
Poison-control centers and hospitals have had to deal with hundreds of emergencies relating to these drugs, which are being banned in places due to their toxicity and side effects.
There's been a lot of media coverage about the problems with bath salts, and "maybe a lot of kids have gotten the message," said Lloyd Johnston, the MTF survey's longtime principal investigator.
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