Marijuana Initiative Features Scientifically Accurate, Credible Messages

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NIDA Director, Alan I. Leshner

NIDA's most recent Monitoring the Future survey of teenage drug use revealed truly alarming trends. The survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students found drug use increasing in virtually all categories of drugs and at all age levels. Most disturbing to me was the finding that, for the third year in a row, there was a significant increase in marijuana use among 8th grade students. Over the past 3 years, annual use of marijuana by 8th graders has nearly doubled. In 1994, 13 percent said they had smoked marijuana at least once during the previous year.

These are 8th graders - 13-year-olds.

The NIDA-sponsored survey also found that antidrug perceptions were deteriorating. Fewer students than before now believe smoking marijuana occasionally - or even regularly - is harmful to their health.

Unless we, as a Nation, do something to correct teens' perceptions and the trend toward increasing levels in the use of marijuana and other drugs, we're headed for serious problems. Marijuana is often the introduction to progressive drug use patterns. For more than 20 years, NIDA-funded long-range studies repeatedly have shown that children and teenagers who use tobacco, alcohol, and particularly marijuana are at increased risk of using other drugs.

When Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala announced the 1994 Monitoring the Future survey results last December, she called them an urgent warning of a disturbing trend in drug use among the country's adolescents. In response to this warning, she announced plans for the Secretary's Marijuana Use Prevention Initiative, a nationwide campaign to provide information to teens and parents that would counteract the drug-glamorizing messages our youth now receive from movies, TV, and pop music.

That Marijuana Initiative is now under way (see "NIDA Takes a Lead Role in National Marijuana Initiative"), and I am gratified that NIDA has been designated to play a key part in providing carefully crafted messages based on scientifically sound knowledge.

All of us involved in the campaign know it is critical that each of its messages be solidly based on scientific research findings. To be convincing to teenagers we must fully and honestly present the scientific evidence. And the information must be presented in ways that are readily understandable and convincing to adolescents and applicable to their world. This scientific documentation and communication are at the heart of NIDA's mission.

Media efforts, involving national TV networks and other print and broadcast media, will provide information on the dangers of marijuana use and how parents and children can address the problem in their homes, schools, and communities. The campaign is a joint effort in the Department of Health and Human Services involving the Office of the Secretary, NIDA, and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. The private sector is also involved, through the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which makes available the communications expertise of major advertising agencies for public service campaigns against drug abuse.

NIDA has already prepared informational booklets for both parents and teens warning of the risks of marijuana use. Also in the works are a videotape, "Marijuana Use: What Parents Can Do," and a science-education series of materials for elementary school students.

The Marijuana Use Prevention Initiative will show young children, teenagers, and their parents that marijuana is a serious threat to the health and well-being of our youth. Too many parents - who may have themselves experimented with marijuana in their youth - often find it difficult to talk to their children about marijuana use or to lay out strict rules against its use.

But marijuana-use circumstances now are different from those remembered by today's parents. These parents should realize that today's children are starting marijuana use at a younger age and that more potent forms of the drug are now available. Parents need to understand that marijuana poses a serious threat to their children's vitality and potential. They need to tell their children not to use it.

The Initiative will show how marijuana is harmful by presenting the facts. Real-world scenarios based on scientific evidence will dramatize the risks involved with its use.

For example, many people don't realize the extent to which marijuana can interfere with the physical and mental skills needed to safely drive a car, increasing the risk of auto accidents. Youngsters often drink beer or other alcoholic drinks while smoking marijuana, which increases still further the risk of automobile accidents.

As NIDA has already shown in its continuing nationwide media campaign for young people, "Get High, Get Stupid, Get AIDS," the Marijuana Initiative will show teens, in the language and media formats that they relate to, the high-risk connection between drug use and the spread of AIDS.

The messages will show children and teenagers that if they begin to use marijuana they become vulnerable to impairments in thinking, speaking, listening effectively, problem solving, and forming concepts. They will graphically demonstrate that marijuana can cripple the skills and functions they need to achieve their full potential or even to get a job. They will feature research showing that students do not retain knowledge when they are high from smoking a joint and that their motivation and cognition may be altered by marijuana, hampering their ability to learn.

We know that drug abuse is closely tied to increasing rates of crime and violence, family disintegration and related childhood developmental barriers, and death and disease - including the spread of AIDS. In its myriad manifestations, drug abuse can rob young people of their chance for a happy, healthy life. That's why we are undertaking this Initiative that targets an early, formative aspect of drug abuse - marijuana use among children and teenagers.