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Parents around the Washington region need to be mighty vigilant these days. There’s a good chance your teenage kids are out getting high. In fact, check your car right now—they may be smoking weed with the doors and windows shut tight, “hotboxing” their way to a killer buzz. And don’t go thinking that just because your kid is an athlete or an honor-roll perennial, he’s not lighting up. These days, your high-achieving offspring are indulging in marijuana more than ever.
At least according to the Washingtonian.
In its November issue, Washington’s lifestyle monthly made a classic contribution to America’s tradition of drug-use hysteria. The story’s banner says it all: “It’s no longer just the Potheads and the Stoners. Now it’s the Honors students and the Athletes who are Getting HIGH.”
In the mag’s layout, the I in “HIGH” comes in the form of a blue bong.
To document its trend scoop, the Washingtonian relied heavily on sources such as “Keith,” an honors student and athlete at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. “Keith” is a pseudonym contrived to protect his pot-smoking habits, but he’s nonetheless quoted as an expert on drug-use trends: “Keith thinks that about 30 percent of students at Walter Johnson blaze most weekends and that 10 percent smoke several times a week or more.” “Blaze” is suburbanese for smoking marijuana.
Staff writer Cindy Rich bulked up the reporting with this source: “A senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda says about 75 percent of the seniors in his class have tried pot, and a quarter smoke regularly.”
The Washingtonian’s scaremongering even cites real studies. For instance, Rich points out that a 2002 Maryland State Department of Education Study found that 42 percent of 12th-graders in Montgomery County public schools had reported using marijuana. The story also references a 2001 finding in a Fairfax County youth survey that 45 percent of public-school 12th-graders had tried the drug.
For more authority on the topic, Rich went to the authorities. She quotes Montgomery County police officer Rick Burge as saying that the high-school pot scene isn’t “like it used to be, where you’d go to a party and it’d be three or four guys sitting around smoking weed. Half the party’s doing it now.”
Holy shit—half the party! Forty-five percent of Fairfax 12th-graders! How long before High Times replaces Washingtonian on area magazine racks?
It could be a while, if you trust more thoroughgoing analyses of teen pot use.
According to a 2002 Maryland State Department of Education study, marijuana use has held steady for 10th- and 12th-graders since 1994, and has dropped markedly among eighth-graders. And according to a Fairfax County youth survey, the number of 12th-graders who have experimented with marijuana dropped from 45 percent to 41 percent between 2001 and 2003.
If those surveys sound familiar, that’s because they’re the same ones that Rich invoked to hype the weed scourge among local pupils. So why did Washingtonian skip over the findings that pot use was actually fading?
“I am basing [my findings] on what I am hearing from the teenagers themselves,” says Rich.
OK, but why cite a 2001 study showing a 45 percent experimentation rate when the same study in 2003 found a 41 percent rate?
“When I spoke with Fairfax County administrators, that was what I was provided with,” she says.
So how does Washingtonian make the case that pot use is expanding to once prim and proper high-school demographics? Through anecdotage and guesswork. Rich is careful to lard her story with references to youthful go-getters who are involved with marijuana. In writing about a Fairfax County drug-counseling program, Rich notes that “student-government presidents and International Baccalaureate students” are included among its clients.
And the following excerpt attests to the rigors of Washingtonian’s survey methods: “By the end of sophomore year, a few of Keith’s friends had cars. More people were smoking, including athletes.”
Duh. All drug studies confirm the common-sense observation of anyone who’s been through high school: Sophomores are more likely to smoke than freshman, juniors are more likely than sophomores, and so on. In the 2003 Fairfax study, for example, the number of kids who’ve tried weed increases from 5 percent in 8th grade to 24 percent in 10th grade and to 41 percent in 12th grade. It’s a truism that even a doped-up honors student/superstar athlete could grasp.
Patrick McConnell, director of youth alcohol and drug services for Fairfax County, says it’s folly to tout pot’s migration to new social groups. “There have always been athletes and there have always been honor students that smoke pot,” says McConnell, who has been studying youth drug use since 1979.
Nor are Washingtonian staffers too helpful in reconciling their contention that pot use is rocking new constituencies with data showing that students are using it less. Says Senior Editor Ken DeCell: “I don’t think anybody’s saying that it was ever just potheads and stoners.” Again, here’s how the story is packaged: “It’s no longer just the Potheads and the Stoners. Now it’s the Honors students and the Athletes who are Getting HIGH.”
DeCell continues, “The deck implies that there are more honor roll students and athletes now…because that’s what the reporting turned up. I don’t think there’s a way to prove it one way or another.”
And Rich essentially bails on the premise of the piece: “The story is not a comparison to then and now.”
Another question that the Washingtonian crowd never answers is just when pot stormed the locker rooms and the science clubs. Was it 2003? 1997? To get to the bottom of this question, Dept. of Media did its own polling of high-school graduates down through the decades:
•Tim Tankersley, 1997 graduate of H-B Woodlawn High School, Arlington, Va.—“Pot was a pretty much carefree, universal thing at this high school….The athletes, especially—they were into drinking the beer and pot was just…part of the whole party thing that they did.”
•Michael Bromley, 1981 graduate of Walter Johnson High School, Bethesda, Md.—There was a kid with “double-800 SATs. His father used to hide a bag [of marijuana] in his top drawer.” That way, the father “could control quality and quantity, and [he] didn’t want his kids getting into the business of drugs.”
•Kevin Whelan, 1977 graduate of Deer Park High School, Deer Park, N.Y.—“You could be a nerd, you could be a jock, you could be picked on, you could have terrible acne, and you could be an altar boy—the one thing we had in common is that we all went back home and got stoned….I graduated with 1,500 kids and I would say three of them—a handful—didn’t get stoned.”
•Ricky Levitan, 1969 graduate of West Hempstead High School, West Hempstead, N.Y.—“Marijuana use crossed all barriers….I knew some guys on the sports teams, and they regularly got high. And they often played games stoned, and of course nobody knew.”
•John Winslow, 1956 graduate of Andover, Andover, Mass.—“There were no girls and no chance of drug use.”
•Charlie Peters, 1944 graduate of Charleston High School, Charleston, W. Va.—“I think I’d had three drinks of alcohol by the time I graduated from high school, and I was considered daring among my friends. There was no pot use—none at all.”
So maybe the Washingtonian is on to a trend here. It’s just 40 years old. —Erik Wemple