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Are more teens smoking marijuana? The evidence is unclear

A study released Thursday says marijuana use among teenagers has increased slightly over last year. But that's not the entire story. (Spencer Platt/GettyImages)

Are more teenagers smoking marijuana?

That depends on which study you're reading. A new study released this week states that more students are smoking weed, especially when they view it as harmless. But another study this week says the exact opposite — that legalizing marijuana, for example, does not caused more youths to smoke pot.

Which study says marijuana use is up?

A new report by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research says slightly more teenagers in grades eight, 10 and 12 are smoking weed. Marijuana use by students in these grades increased to 24 percent, a 1.3 percent increase over 2016.

“This increase has been expected by many,” Richard Miech, the principal investigator of the study, said in a written statement. “Historically, marijuana use has gone up as adolescents see less risk of harm in using it. We’ve found that the risk adolescents see in marijuana use has been steadily going down for years to the point that it is now at the lowest level we’ve seen in four decades.”

Smoking pot is more common among older students, the study found. About 37 percent of seniors smoked pot at least once in the last year. That compares to 25.5 percent of sophomores and 10 percent of eighth-grade students.

About 45,000 students from 380 public and private schools across the country participated in the study, now in its 43rd year. The study tracks cigarette, alcohol and drug use among students in grades 8, 10 and 12. It is designed and conducted by research scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Does legalizing marijuana have an impact?

Other studies suggest that overall teenage marijuana use is both much lower than the University of Michigan's study would suggest and that teenage pot use is actually much lower than 24 percent, and is, in fact, decreasing.

For instance, in September, The Washington Post reported that weed use among the nation's 12- to 17-year-olds "dropped to their lowest level in more than two decades." The figure came from a federal study.

Other data suggests teens do not smoke more marijuana if they view it as harmless.

Opponents have argued that legalizing marijuana would have a negative impact on teens. But federal data shows declining marijuana use among teens from ages 12 to 17 in states where recreational use of the drug is allowed.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual nationwide survey, found that fewer teens smoked pot in four of the five states where weed was legal from 2014 to 2016. The study surveyed about 70,000 randomly selected individuals age 12 and older, according to the organization’s website.

The study is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

State laws vary, but as of 2017 marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C. Age restrictions apply. In Colorado, for example, it is illegal for anyone under age 21 to use marijuana, unless it is approved for a medical reason.

So, what should we believe?

Is marijuana and other drug use among teens really a problem? That might depend on which teenager you ask.

WKBW-TV in Buffalo, NY interviewed students about the University of Michigan study.

Tyeshawn Fleming, 18, told the TV station that the survey seems flawed. He said he began smoking weed at age 12, then advanced to other drugs.

“I started experimenting with Xanax just from seeing my friends doing it,” he said.

A local addiction expert in Buffalo also refuted the study.

“I'm not buying what they're selling,” said Jodie Altman, campus director for Kids Escaping Drugs, part of the Renaissance Home, a drug treatment center for students from age 12 to 20."

"Drug use is not down, and I think when we start to categorize it, that almost says we're winning this battle, which is not true,” Altman told WKBW-TV.

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