Dec. 14, 2010 -- Teenagers are beginning to think of marijuana as medicine, and more and more young people are toking up as a result, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske argues upon the release of a major survey on teenage drug use.
The 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey queried 50,000 eighth, 10th and 12th graders about their use of, and attitudes toward, illicit drugs.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy survey found that daily pot use among high school seniors is at 6.1 percent, its highest point since the early 1980s. In the past month, 21.4 percent of 12th graders said they had used marijuana, continuing an upward tick that began in the middle of the decade. Monthly, more seniors now smoke pot than cigarettes, a phenomenon not seen in nearly three decades.
It's the decreasing perception of the harm of marijuana that is leading to increased pot use, according to the drug czar.
"If young people don't really perceive that [marijuana] is dangerous or of any concern, it usually means there'll be an uptick in the number of kids who are using. And sure enough, in 2009, that's exactly what we did see," Kerlikowske told ABC News Radio.
"We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine," the former Seattle police chief argued. "So it shouldn't be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana."
On the other hand, he said, a broad understanding of the harms of tobacco and alcohol has led to lower cigarette smoking and binge drinking in teens. Regular cigarette smoking continues its decline, and binge drinking (five or more drinks at one sitting) among high school seniors is down from 25.2 percent to 23.2 percent. Tougher enforcement has also contributed to these declines, Kerlikowske said.
"We know that through education and enforcement, something can be done. But I think we should also be very concerned about these marijuana numbers, particularly among these very young people," Kerlikowske said.
Though increases in marijuana use were seen across the board, Kerlikowske said in an interview with ABC News Radio that the increase in pot smoking among the nation's eighth graders is "particularly disturbing."
"I think that's both disturbing and should be a wakeup call to all of us."