PORTSMOUTH — The rise of medicinal marijuana centers and the recent decriminalization of the drug were cited as potential reasons Tuesday night for why so many high school students admit to smoking pot in a substance abuse survey presented to the School Committee.
According to the report, prepared by John Mattson Consulting for the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition (PPC), nearly half of the seniors at Portsmouth High School say they’ve smoked marijuana. About 42 percent of grade 11 students admitted doing the same, while the numbers for grades 10 and 9 were about 33 and 12 percent, respectively. On a whole, well over a third of students at the school said they’ve smoked marijuana.
“The kids do perceive tobacco are hurting them, but they don’t see marijuana as hurting them,” said John Mattson, who presented the survey results along with Ray Davis, coordinator of PPC.
While billions of dollars’ worth of research has gone into proving the health dangers of tobacco, he said, the same hasn’t been done for marijuana. “Now it’s cool to be a marijuana smoker,” said Mr. Mattson. “I’ve always said, we don’t need anything to make us stupider.”
The findings about marijuana use and other substance abuse detailed in the survey of 1,200 students alarmed School Committee members, who vowed to take action.
“If we sit here and do nothing and wait for an incident to occur — and it will occur — shame on us,” said School Committee Chairman David Croston, who challenged administrators to help put a plan in place to fight substance abuse in the schools.
Pointing to the survey finding that 65 percent of seniors at PHS have consumed alcohol and roughly half of them have smoked pot at least once in the past 30 days, Mr. Croston said it’s also up to students to lead the way.
“Those are our leaders in our schools, those are our athletes,” he said. “I would like to see how we can actually develop a program where our leaders set the trend.”
The study anonymously surveyed 1,200 students in grades 7 to 12, and also carried out four focus groups — three with students, one with parents — as well as interviews with five community leaders.
“This is the largest substance abuse study ever done in Portsmouth,” said Mr. Davis.
The full 60-page survey is available for download by visiting http://portsmouthpublic.novusagenda.com and clicking on the link for the April 23 School Committee meeting. The report is expected to be posted on the town’s website as well.
Usage increases by grade
The survey looked at four areas: cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol and pills. Mr. Mattson said one thing the report clearly indicates is that the use of each drug increases with each grade, with alcohol being the dominant drug for all age ranges. In addition, while boys may have started out using a substance more than girls, the gap in usage between genders decreased over time, he said.
“At the end, boys and girls were pretty much using at the same rate,” he said.
According to the study, a high percentage of local children start using drugs or alcohol when they’re in the 14-15 age range — 25 percent had their first cigarette at 14, 26 percent started smoking pot at 14 (23 percent at 15), while 65 percent reported having their first drink between the age of 13 and 16.
Mr. Mattson said one of the more significant findings in the survey was that 20 percent of those children surveyed said they first started drinking alcohol at the age of 10 or younger.
Confusion over pot
According to the survey, perceptions of risk dramatically decrease as students get older, said Mr. Mattson. For example, 70 percent of grade 12 boys didn’t think there was a risk using marijuana on a daily basis.
Mr. Mattson and committee member Frederick Faerber said many students falsely believe that the recent decriminalization of possession of smaller amounts of marijuana means the drug is legal. The perception about the drug has also been colored by the increasing numbers of approved medical marijuana facilities — including one in Portsmouth.
“The perception these kids have is, what’s wrong with marijuana? It’s gradually being approved everywhere. And I don’t know how you’re gonna fight that,” said Mr Faerber.
Other key findings
Some other highlights from the survey:
• Students who smoke marijuana are doing it regularly and in terms of access, “they’re saying it’s always available,” said Mr. Mattson. In the focus groups, some kids talked about getting pot from people with medicinal marijuana cards and growers as well as siblings, friends and high school students, said Mr. Davis.
• Although alcohol is the main drug of choice, students say they’re not able to buy it in local liquor stores. Instead they rely on older friends to buy it for them, and often times raid their parents’ liquor cabinets.
• Although beer is still popular, when students consume alcohol “what they drink most is vodka and they drink it to get drunk,” said Mr. Mattson. In the focus groups students also talked of “Purple Punch — cough syrup, wine and putting whatever pills you could into it,” he said.
• Students’ perceptions of substance abuse rarely matched the actual reported usage. “The perception is that everybody’s doing it,” said Mr. Mattson, pointing to findings from students in grades 9 and 10. The gap lessens as students get older, he said.
• The use of harder drugs came up in the focus groups and “did produce some anecdotal reports of high school use of cocaine, Ecstasy or Molly, (presumably from Little Compton students) as well as some use of synthetic marijuana and mushrooms,” according to the study.
• Students had plenty to say about behavioral consequences for drug use. According to the study, some students feel that star athletes, good students and pupils from Boys Town receive preferential treatment after they’ve been caught drinking or doing drugs. They also said community service is not going to stop someone from smoking pot. Some parents, meanwhile, said that out-of-school suspensions are a reward, not a punishment.
• As for substance abuse education, some students said they need more information about the dangers of marijuana. The DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was “a horrible joke,” one student said, but others said former NBA player and motivational speaker Chris Herren had a big influence on them when he visited the schools (see related story). Other students said they’d like more extracurricular activities and support for school-based clubs.