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Summer is When Kids Experiment

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CHICAGO -- Summer's almost here and that means teens will have more time on their hands to pick up bad habits -- such as smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, a new federal survey says.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released yesterday, estimates 6,300 youths will try marijuana each day during June and July, a 40 percent increase from the rest of the year. More than one in five of all teens who first experiment with marijuana do so in the first two months of summer.

Additionally, the survey found that first-time use of alcohol and cigarettes also increases during the summer, when many teens are less supervised and, particularly in this economy, having trouble finding jobs.

At a news conference in Chicago, White House drug czar John Walters challenged teens and parents to quell marijuana use this summer, noting that the drug has been developed to become much more potent and addictive over the last 20 years.

"You are going to be on the front line of those influences," said Walters, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, addressing a group of Chicago high school students. "But we need adults to stand with you."

Daniel Angres, medical director of the Rush Behavioral Health Center in Chicago, said the lack of structured environment that school provides could lead to youths taking part in such risky behavior.

Kenneth Gladish, national executive director of the YMCA, said other factors that contribute to first time marijuana use include peer pressure, lack of adult role models and a natural inclination to take risks. He also cited marijuana as the "entry-level drug of choice" because it is economically accessible.

"Marijuana is riskier than we might think, especially for kids," Gladish said.

"There is evidence that the average teenage brain is going through a metamorphosis," Angres said. "A powerful agent like marijuana ... it's particularly bad when the brain is in a transitional time."

Several teens who were present said they understood the risks of drug use, which they learned in their health classes. Still, they know other teens who use marijuana, which they and surveys say is the most common illegal drug taken by high-schoolers. Some said they even know elementary school students who've been caught using it.

But Maribel Davila, another freshman, also placed responsibility on parents.

"A lot of kids are pushed because there's a lot of stuff going on at home," she said, referring such things as divorce, adults' own addiction issues and other family discord.

None of the students was surprised by the findings. Nor was at least one researcher not involved with this survey who tracks teen drug use.

While its helpful to know when young people are most likely to start taking drugs "the real question is 'What should they do based on that information?' " said Lloyd Johnston, who heads the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and oversees an annual national survey of teens called "Monitoring the Future."

The most recent University of Michigan survey, released late last year, found an 11 percent drop in illegal drug use in the past two years.

But it also found that, while marijuana use had dropped, nearly half of 12th-graders surveyed said they had tried it at least once -- and about a third said they had used it in the last year.

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