Illinois law enforcement groups eye teen marijuana use trends

A new survey from two Illinois law enforcement groups provide anecdotal evidence that more teens are using marijuana as state lawmakers draft legislation to legalize recreational use of the drug for adults.

An advocacy group has questioned the value of the law enforcement survey and pointed to statistics in other states that show teen cannabis use declined after recreational use became legal.

The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police surveyed 104 school resource officers and found 75 of them dealt with a pot issue in the past month, an increase from the year before. The survey also found more reports of teenagers vaping, which can be a delivery mechanism for nicotine, THC or other substances. THC is an active ingredient in marijuana that produces a high.

In the first survey last year, the groups reported that nearly 60 percent of respondents said marijuana was the primary drug problem in schools. The groups say that was up 8 percent.

Reports gathered by the groups included students using and selling THC products for use in vaporizers.

Marijuana Policy Project’s Chris Lindsey said the survey was anecdotal and questioned the value of the survey.

“What they present is a pile of anecdotal stories about ‘hey, there was a kid in the bathroom at this school, look at what he said’,” Lindsey said.

Chiefs of Police spokesman Ed Wojcicki said the survey provided a snapshot of what resource officers see in schools.

“They do track the number of incidents,” Wojcicki said. “It’s data. It’s not anecdotal.”

The report puts part of the blame on a 2016 state law that made possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana a civil infraction, not a crime.

“With that, it is found that it has been increasingly difficult for adults to convince teens that marijuana use is dangerous,” the law enforcement report said.

“The implication is if you make those kinds of changes and look what happens, kids, boy, they run out and they get the marijuana,” Lindsay said. “And the problem with that is it overlooks what actually happens.”

Lindsay said in states that have legalized pot for recreational use, the rate of teen use decreases. That’s true for Colorado.

In Colorado, the state’s 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey found that since legalization in 2014 the rate of middle school and high school students using marijuana is down from 21 percent in 2015 to 19 percent in 2017. The number of youth who reported having ever used marijuana was down from 38 percent in 2015 to 35 percent in 2017. The survey is done every two years.

“Marijuana affects more than just a teen’s developing brain and health,” Illinois School Resource Officers Association President Jonathan Kaplan said in a statement attached to the report. “Frequent use of the drug can have long-term effects on a teen’s life goals.”

Lindsay said the study is a tactic he’s seen law enforcement groups try in other states. Ultimately, he said prohibition doesn’t work and makes everyone, including young people, less safe. He pointed to research he’s seen into the unregulated alcohol market during Prohibition in the early 20th century.

“During Prohibition, the incidents of minors going to seek or get medical assistance during that time spiked,” Lindsay said.

He said if marijuana is legalized for recreational use, it comes out of the shadows and is regulated. Law enforcement agencies can still go after bad actors.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports 5.6 percent of 8th graders in 2018 used pot in the past month. That’s up a tenth of a percent from the year before, but down nearly a full percent from 2015. Nearly 17 percent of 10th graders in 2018 reported using marijuana in the previous month, a 1 percent increase from the year before and nearly two points higher than 2015. For 12th graders, NIDA puts 22 percent used it in the past month in 2018. That’s down seven-tenths a percent from last year but up nearly a percentage from 2015.