The Agenda

Alcohol Use Among Teens Plummets By Half Since 1991

That’s my headline, drawn from a new story in the Los Angeles Times by Shari Roan:

Since 1991, the proportion of eighth-grade students who said they had used alcohol within the last 30 days has declined by half, to 13%, the survey found. Rates have also fallen among older students, with binge-drinking among seniors dropping from 41% in 1981 to 22% this year. Still, about 40% of high school seniors said they had used alcohol within the last 30 days.

Cigarette use fell in all three age groups, which was reassuring since the 2010 survey hinted that the decades-long decline in smoking may have begun to reverse, Johnston said. In all three grades combined, 11.7% of youths said they had smoked within the last 30 days, down from 12.8% in the 2010 survey.

Declines were also seen in the use of inhalants, crack cocaine, the painkiller Vicodin, the medication Adderall for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and over-the-counter cold and cough medicines.

Yet the article is primarily concerned with a quite modest increase in marijuana consumption.

One in four of the 47,000 teens surveyed for the 2011 Monitoring the Future report said they had used marijuana during the last year, up from 21.4% in 2007. The survey, which polled students nationwide in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades, also found that 1 in 15 of the oldest students used pot on a daily or near-daily basis — the highest rate since 1981.

Increased marijuana consumption isn’t good news, exactly, but substituting marijuana for alcohol probably yields a net improvement, per this short piece by Maia Szalavitz at Time:

Comparing traffic deaths over time in states with and without medical marijuana law changes, the researchers found that fatal car wrecks dropped by 9% in states that legalized medical use — which was largely attributable to a decline in drunk driving. The researchers controlled for other factors like changes in driving laws and the number of miles driven that could affect the results.

Medical marijuana laws were not significantly linked with changes in daytime crash rates or those that didn’t involve alcohol. But the rate of fatal crashes in which a driver had consumed any alcohol dropped 12% after medical marijuana was legalized, and crashes involving high levels of alcohol consumption fell 14%.

The authors found that medical marijuana laws reduced crashes in more men than women—by 13% compared to 9%— in line with data showing that men are more likely to register as medical marijuana users than women.

The overall reduction in traffic deaths was comparable to that seen after the national minimum drinking age was raised to 21, the authors note.

So before we freak out about the increase in marijuana consumption, let’s think about this: would we rather see a spike in the use of crack cocaine and alcohol? The study Szalavitz cites, I should stress, doesn’t “prove” that the availability of medical marijuana is responsible for the decrease in fatal car wrecks. There are all kinds of potential confounding variables. We need far more evidence to determine the reasons why alcohol consumption declined so sharply in these states. Even so, it is an intriguing correlation that merits further study. It certainly seems as though teenagers are substituting marijuana for alcohol, and it is at least plausible that some adults might be doing the same. 

If anything, we should focus drug policy efforts on further reducing alcohol consumption among the young and the chronically drunk. Mark Kleiman has offered a roadmap for how we might do that: raises alcohol excise taxes, revoke the license to drink rather than the license to drive, and, somewhat counterintuitively, eliminate the minimum drinking age, which has destigmatized lawbreaking among the large number of young people who drink occasionally. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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