Evidence of rising teen marijuana use is sparking debate about whether the movement to legalize marijuana for adults is sending a dangerous message to teens.

Teenagers in Maine and other states that allow medical marijuana are more likely to believe the drug is harmless, according to recently released federal data. Federal officials say broader legalization campaigns are reinforcing that belief and may help to explain why more American teens are using marijuana even as cigarette and alcohol use is down.

New Maine survey data – and interviews with local youths – confirm that teens here are now more likely to see marijuana as harmless than they were in years past. At the same time, however, the 2013 survey does not show a rise in pot use by Maine teens in recent years.

While some Portland teens say use is widespread among their peers, statewide surveys have been relatively consistent over the last several years, with about 22 percent of high schoolers saying they smoked pot in the previous 30 days.

Legalization advocates say they don’t condone use by teens, and opponents of legalization say the drug carries real and serious health risks for youths because their brains have not yet fully developed.

Maine is one of about 20 states that allow medical marijuana use, and Portlanders overwhelmingly voted in November in favor of legal recreational use by adults 21 and older.

The Marijuana Policy Project has made Maine one of 10 states where it hopes to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana – much like alcohol – by 2016. The group successfully passed similar initiatives in Washington state and Colorado. In those states and in Portland, legalization advocates argued that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and people should be able to use it instead of drinking.

President Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, criticized that message last week when releasing the national data showing increased use by teens. “For some to say that it is less dangerous than other substances is a ridiculous statement,” he said.

Several Portland High School students last week said they are well aware of the legalization efforts, and don’t consider marijuana to be harmful. They also said pot use is widespread among their peers and probably higher than the surveys revealed.

One 17-year-old boy said he believes marijuana is safe because no one has ever died from using it, whereas cigarettes have been known to cause cancer.

“I’d put it as a miracle drug,” the junior said.

The Press Herald chose not to name teens in this article without their parents’ consent.

A classmate of the 17-year-old cited the legalization campaign in Portland, which repeatedly stated that marijuana is safer than alcohol. That message was displayed on public buses and bus shelters, and featured on other campaign literature.

“It made me not want to drink alcohol,” he said.

Sophomore George Chaison-Lapine also said he doesn’t think marijuana is harmful. However, he only sees value in its medicinal uses.

“Recreationally, I think it’s kind of stupid. But, medicinally, I think it’s helpful,” he said.

The 16-year-old said marijuana-laced chocolates helped ease the suffering of his grandmother when she was dying of cancer.

Marijuana use among teenagers is highest in states that allow medicinal uses, according to U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, which based its state rankings of 2010-11 data.

In a national survey, 34 percent of teens who have used marijuana within the last 30 days and who live in states that allow medical marijuana said a source for their marijuana was another person’s medicinal prescription, according to the “Monitoring the Future” report, which was released Dec. 18. The report is a joint effort between the National Institute for Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan.

Nationally, as perception of risk decreases, use by teens increases.

In 2013, about 60 percent of high school students said there was little to no risk in using marijuana regularly, which is up from 48 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, use of the drug among high school students increased to 27.2 percent in 2013 from 20.6 percent in 2009.

Alcohol and tobacco use by teens continued to drop from previous surveys, according to the national report. More teens now say they use marijuana than tobacco.

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, attributed the drop in teens’ use of alcohol and tobacco to the fact that, unlike marijuana, access is tightly regulated.

“Those selling marijuana in the underground market are not asking for ID,” Tvert said. “By regulating marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes and enforcing similar age restrictions, we would very likely see a similar decrease in availability and use among teens.”

In Maine, the link between use and perceived risk is less apparent. And marijuana use among high school teens in Maine is about 5 percent lower than the national average.

According to the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which was released Dec. 17, nearly 52 percent of high school teens said the regular use of marijuana carried little to no risk. That’s up from 43.9 percent in 2011 and 39.1 percent in 2009.

However, the percentage of Maine teens who reported using marijuana within the last 30 days has held relatively steady at 21.6 percent in 2013, 22.1 percent in 2011 and 21.7 percent in 2009.

The latest trends highlight the work that lies ahead for legalization opponents, such as Sensible Approach to Marijuana, according to Scott Gagnon, the director of SAM Maine.

“To us, it underscores the need to get more science-based information out there,” Gagnon said.

Citing a variety of scholarly papers from 2002 to 2012, SAM says marijuana is more potent than it was in the 1960s and is more addictive. Use by teens can stunt brain development and performance in schools, SAM says.

Gagnon said he is troubled by the fact that now a majority of teenagers in Maine believe that there is little to no risk in using marijuana regularly.

Also troubling is a shift in perceived parental attitudes, he said.

A higher percentage – 15.3 percent – of Maine teens in 2013 reported that their parents would not be concerned if they used pot than in previous surveys.

“There’s a lot of confusing mixed messages about marijuana,” Gagnon said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings