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He’s a good kid: just graduated from Oak Park–River Forest High School, headed to college. Likes Dr. Pepper and playing his Les Paul. Plenty of friends. Drinks beer when he can get it. But marijuana is easier to find. It’s around so much, he says, that choosing not to indulge can sometimes be difficult. “There’s a reason they call it Smoke Park–Reefer Forest,” he said matter-of-factly.
A friend, also a graduate of Oak Park–River Forest, recalled, “I was in the middle of a deal during a standardized test last year.” He passed money one way, drugs the other. “It’s huge at our school,” he said, “so huge you don’t think it’s even a problem.” Why did he think marijuana is so prevalent? “We have the financial stability of a suburb and quick access to Chicago. Those two don’t mix.”
Although alcohol is still the entry-level substance of choice for most teens, marijuana appears to be catching up. And the drug is commonplace not only at Oak Park–River Forest, where the high school recently conducted its own survey and found that a third of sophomores and half of seniors had used it in the past year. Teens throughout Chicago and its suburbs described the same widespread use and expressed the same blasé attitude toward it. In fact, several teens told us that marijuana is easier to get than alcohol.
“New Trier loves drugs,” said 18-year-old Heather. “You know how in The Breakfast Club, there is the stoner, the preppy, the jock? Here, everybody smokes pot. The AP kids do it; the not-so-smart kids do it. The jocks do it. The people with money get into prescription pills, cocaine—those things are more accessible because they have money. But everybody smokes pot.”
Everybody—an exaggeration? Kristine Schmitt, who, as student assistant program coordinator at New Trier oversees the school’s vast drug prevention campaign, says that the administration is keenly aware that some students choose to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana. But, she adds, “it is not at the same level as kids perceive it to be.” Schmitt cites a 2006 school survey, which found that perception, at least when it comes to drinking, is different from reality: “In that survey, 42 percent of kids had had one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days, but 90 percent perceived that most students had.” Meanwhile, 31 percent had tried marijuana, but 82 percent perceived that most of their peers had. The point, Schmitt says, is that only kids who try it, talk about it. The rest stay silent—and don’t defend their point of view. “Kids tend to not speak up about non-use because of concerns or pressures to fit in.”
“I don’t see it as a bad thing anymore. A lot of people I look up to smoke weed. Should I think less of them?” That’s Jaylan, the Urban Prep Charter student who lives on the South Side. “My parents divorced, and my pops started smoking weed every day. Every day when I come home.” He paused. “A lot of people do it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.” It becomes a bad thing, he added, when you get addicted, and addicted means being unable to function. His litmus test: “Can you get your work done and still be serious?” If not, he said, you have a problem.
Jaylan started smoking marijuana in the summer before tenth grade. His friends were doing it, and he said no for a while, but the pressure “wears and tears on you.” He doesn’t smoke anymore, but it doesn’t bother him when his friends do. In fact, the only time he worries about marijuana is when it might be mixed with something. “You see pretty foul stuff—mixing weed with whatever’s in the medicine cabinet, or meth, or cocaine, even cough syrup. It doesn’t matter if you go to a ‘well-off’ school. Those kids have access; they don’t have a care in the world.”
Back in Oak Park, two 18-year-old girls talked about the first time they smoked marijuana. “I was with a friend who had done it, and I wanted to try it,” said one. “I was a junior at the time, and it was almost weird that I hadn’t done it yet.” The other girl chimed in: She had tried it at a party at a friend’s house when she was 17. “She’s two years older, and we were with older people. We were all drinking. They passed around a bowl, and I tried it.”
Is marijuana use widespread enough to be a problem? The Oak Park girls were unsure. Processing the question aloud, they started rattling off reasons why not: “It’s safer than drinking when it comes to driving. It’s not addictive”—or is it? One remembered a friend who had struggled with trying to quit. “It’s so casual that people who have problems don’t get them addressed,” the girl said quietly. “He didn’t have enough voices around him telling him to quit.”
Experts say that the problem is frequency—many of the teens we talked to said they knew people who were regular marijuana smokers—and the early age at which kids are getting started. “When we know many times that adults can’t self-control, how can we expect someone with less experience to self-control?” asks Bennett Leventhal, a child psychiatrist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). (See “The Young Brain.”)
We asked a roomful of teens from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Lane Tech College Prep, two top Chicago high schools, if pot is prevalent. Yes. Is that a problem? They stared blankly until one 18-year-old boy, to the amusement of his friends, started to recite a litany of reasons why marijuana should be legalized. He had written a paper earlier in the year advocating legalization —a choice his friends found ironic, since he’d never tried the drug.
“My thesis was that if you legalized pot, it could be used for medicinal purposes, and it could be profitable to the government by ridding it of its black-market value,” he said, echoing the political debate over legalization. “We have this moral sense of taking in certain substances into our body, but our decision to do so is supported by the Constitution. Cigarettes are worse for you in so many [more] ways than marijuana is.”
We asked why he hadn’t yet tried it. “I don’t want to,” he said, as his friends nodded in support. “Mostly because I know that it’s a quick fix. Also, I’m strong willed, but for all I know it might snap something in my brain and I’ll say, I want to keep doing this. I know it’s not addictive—but why risk it?”