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Marijuana is much more potent today than it used to be, say experts, who hope that parents realize this and will caution their teens against using it.

Too many parents feel uncomfortable about discussing drug-use with their teenagers - perhaps because in some cases feelings of hypocrisy make an already awkward subject tougher to talk about, a Senate panel was told Thursday."There's no question that parents are ambivalent and finding it more difficult to talk about marijuana use with their kids," Joseph Califano, a former Health, Education and Welfare secretary, said after appearing before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. "But this is important, because the drug is much different today."

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the panel's ranking Democrat, said parents need to realize that today's marijuana is far more potent than the marijuana that was pervasive on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It's like comparing the buckshot in a shotgun shell to a laser-guided missile - they're dif-fer-ent," Biden said. "It's much more dangerous to their children than it was to them."

The amount of the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, has grown from 1 percent to 4 percent over the past two decades, said Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But even more troublesome, he said, is the current practice of lacing marijuana with cocaine or other drugs.

"When you factor in that people are adulterating it, the net effect is that you actually have a much more dangerous drug than there was in the 1960s and the 1970s," Leshner said.

Califano, who heads a substance abuse research center at Columbia University, also released a study suggesting that the younger a child experiments with marijuana, the more likely that child will try cocaine and other harder drugs.

The release of Califano's study comes amid growing concern that drug use among teenagers is increasing.

Last year, for example, the National Institute for Drug Control Policy reported that the percentage of eighth-graders using drugs has climbed from 11 percent to 21 percent since 1991.

Califano's study also makes clear, however, that drug use has not returned to the high-water mark of the late 1970s, when more than 50 percent of the seniors surveyed used drugs.

The study examined the drug-use habits of 13,000 individuals.