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Marijuana Users' Air of Defiance

By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Eric L. Wee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 3, 1996; Page A01

The heaviest marijuana smokers gather near their high school after class, planning where to party, arranging a buy, sometimes sharing a joint on the spot. The meeting places often have nicknames -- "The Wall" near Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, "The Woods" outside Woodbridge High, "The Hill" beside Langley High in McLean.

Other suburban teenagers say they don't get stoned on school days but routinely use marijuana on weekends in their homes when parents are absent. Still others haven't tried marijuana but say it is a constant temptation, a drug that they say turns up at almost every party and is not limited to any one high school clique.

"Frankly, I know more people who smoke marijuana than who smoke cigarettes," said Scott Michelman, 17, who recently graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County and said he doesn't use marijuana. "It's a fact of life. It's more common than many people believe, or more than many people want to believe."

Jocks and honor students. Grungers and preppies. Rich and poor. Marijuana is part of the social scene for some teenagers in all these high school groups and has growing allure for middle school students, according to interviews with 65 teenagers from Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince William, Loudoun, Anne Arundel and Stafford counties.

At a time when adult drug use is also rising, according to surveys, marijuana use is widely perceived among those students as being harmless, despite medical evidence to the contrary.

The teenagers who were interviewed estimated that -- based on their perception of what they see at parties and hear around school -- roughly three-quarters of the students at their schools had tried marijuana and that at least a quarter of all the students are regular users, ranging from once a day to once a month. Of those interviewed, about one-third admitted trying marijuana at least once; many others would not say.

These estimates by area teenagers are much higher than those reported in national and local surveys, and researchers said teenagers often exaggerate the extent of drug use among their peers. At the same time, the students' impression that marijuana's popularity is growing is mirrored in surveys and in recent warnings from law enforcement officials in the Washington area.

Republicans hope to make growing drug use among young people an issue in the presidential campaign, with GOP candidate Robert J. Dole attacking President Clinton in a recent radio address for his administration's "silence" on the issue. Dole said the number of 12- to 17-year-olds using marijuana has almost doubled since Clinton took office.

Annual surveys of 50,000 teenagers by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that 28.7 percent of 10th-graders said they used marijuana at least once in 1995, compared with 16.5 percent in 1991. For eighth-graders, the figure rose from 6.2 percent to 15.8 percent during that period.

In a 1994 Maryland survey, 13 percent of all eighth-graders said they had tried marijuana -- four times the figure in 1992.

Locally, police and school officials in the Washington suburbs say that drug-related violations and school expulsions have increased sharply. One of the largest jumps was in Fairfax, where school officials recommended that 81 students be expelled last year for marijuana distribution, compared with 44 the year before.

The number of Virginia minors arrested for marijuana possession and sales climbed to 2,412 in 1995, five times the number arrested five years ago, according to the Virginia State Police.

Despite law enforcement crackdowns, parents' warnings and the anti-drug lessons students have received in school since the fourth grade, most of the teenagers who were interviewed said they believed they could smoke marijuana with little risk of endangering their health or being caught by parents or police.

Although some marijuana smokers said the drug has made them sluggish and less interested in schoolwork, many other students said they think the drug won't affect their grades if they use it in moderation. And many dismissed the dangers cited by educators -- that marijuana can cause heart, lung and brain damage, impairs short-term memory and often leads to use of harder drugs -- as overblown.

Nick Zander, age 18"Everyone recognizes that it's not like eating a burger, that it's not something you can do every day at lunch," said Nick Zander, 18 (pictured at left), who just graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County and said he smokes marijuana about once a month. "But they also know it's surely not the death and insanity shown on television or in health class."

Lydia Dale, 15, who will be a sophomore this fall at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High and said she doesn't smoke marijuana, thinks middle school students ignore the anti-drug messages they heard as elementary students.

"When you're that young, you're not exposed to drugs and it's like a foreign land. You listen to the warnings and it's scary stuff," she said. "Then we got to the seventh and eighth grade, and you know people who are using it. People just disregard" the lessons they were taught about marijuana.

Just as it was 30 years ago, marijuana today is a symbol of rebellion and a way to look cool to one's friends. But, echoing the observations of school officials and law enforcement authorities, the students said that rebellion now occurs at a younger age.

Elizabeth Dart, 14, who will be an eighth-grader at Saunders Middle School in Prince William this fall, said classmates who are known marijuana smokers "get a certain amount of respect."

"One kid came to school high and was sent home," she said. "When he came back, people treated him like he was some special person."

Justin Lloyd, 11, who will be a seventh-grader at Central Middle School in Anne Arundel, said that his classmates think it's hip to wear T-shirts emblazoned with psychedelic mushrooms and that they sometimes draw marijuana leaves on their backpacks. Occasionally students will smoke marijuana before school or pretend to be high, thinking it will enhance their reputation, he said.

" 'It gives you a really cool high.' That's what they say," said Justin, adding that he has been tempted to try marijuana several times but doesn't plan to do so.

Eric Hagemann, 15, a sophomore at Langley High, said many of his classmates find marijuana alluring because of their infatuation with the 1960s. A guitarist in a band that plays Jimi Hendrix and other music of that period, Eric said he hasn't tried marijuana but sometimes wonders if it's an important part of growing up for someone who loves rock-and-roll.

"There's a side of me that says it's dumb and stupid. But to another side of me, it looks kind of cool. I still feel that they're somehow more grown up than me," he said about friends who smoke.

Most of the teenagers interviewed said it would be easy for them to buy marijuana if they wanted it. High schoolers said they know which classmates could arrange to get it for them. Middle schoolers said they would know whom to contact at high schools and sometimes at their own schools. One student who just finished the eighth grade at Beville Middle School in Prince William said he has been able to buy marijuana just a few blocks from his home in Dale City by calling the pager of a high school friend.

Zander said: "It is actually easier to get pot than it is to get beer. You don't have to have any covert operation or set up any special contacts."

Some teenagers said marijuana gives them a better high than beer, leaving them feeling mellow instead of out of control. Some said they like it because they think it's easier to drive stoned than to drive drunk.

"No one drinks and drives, but they smoke and drive," said Zach Myles, 17, who attends the private Bullis School in Potomac. "They don't think it impairs them. They think they can handle it."

Part of marijuana's appeal is its low cost. For $20, students can buy a one-eighth-ounce bag that can get six people high for the night. Older high school students in wealthy suburbs say that hardly puts a dent in their spending money. But younger students described how they save up cash from baby-sitting, mowing lawns and other after-school jobs to finance their use. One middle school boy said he sold his video games and compact discs to raise the $50 a week he spent on the drug.

From an early age, students are told repeatedly in school that marijuana and other drugs can damage them psychologically. In Fairfax, the largest school system in the region, students begin hearing about marijuana's ill effects in the fourth grade; by the time they are seniors, they have sat through as much as 10 hours of instruction on the drug.

The message they got about harder drugs has stuck. The teenagers said they've steered clear of cocaine, heroin and PCP because of stories about deaths from overdoses. But many of the same youths scoffed at the warnings about marijuana, even though current strains of marijuana are far more powerful than those available in the 1960s and '70s.

That's because they have seen some college-bound classmates get good grades or become star athletes while smoking regularly, they said.

Liz Schuster, age 16"I've heard the excuse, 'No one has ever died from pot.' I guess it's true," said Liz Schuster, 16 (pictured at left), a junior at Madison High School in Fairfax who doesn't smoke but estimates that nearly all of her classmates have at some point.

Some students, however, said frequent marijuana use has caused them to get to school late because they didn't wake up on time, to fail tests because they smoked instead of studying and, in some cases, to cut class.

A 14-year-old Prince William student who just finished the eighth grade at Lake Ridge Middle School said he's been smoking marijuana with friends his age and older since he was 11. The youth said that he often brings a group of friends home from school and that they smoke marijuana in a "bong" pipe in his second-floor bedroom until his mother comes home from work.

In the corner of his room are trophies and photos from the baseball, lacrosse and football teams he used to play on. He said he quit them after he started smoking.

"It's made me stupid. I'm slower in reading. I just won't catch on to things as quick. Sometimes I promise myself I'll quit," he said, although he added that he still loves the feeling of getting high.

Some teenagers said the fear of such side effects has kept them from trying marijuana. At the same time, they said, they often see marijuana use when they're with friends and usually try not to call attention to the fact that they don't smoke.

Jared Srole, 17, who will be a senior at Montgomery's Churchill High School, said he would never consider using marijuana because it's unhealthful and illegal. The lessons he learned in school and from his parents are ingrained, he said. "I have morals. I just can't do it," he said.

Justin Lloyd, the seventh-grader from Anne Arundel, said his dad talked him out of smoking marijuana or doing any drugs. "He just told me it ate up a lot of your memory . . . and that you could lose your friends," he said. "It sounded cool at first, but now that I've learned about it, I don't want to do it."

Peggy Blackmon, 17, a Woodbridge High School junior last year, said that some of her marijuana-smoking friends aren't as mentally quick as they used to be and that other friends have lost control of their lives because of drugs.

"I can see the side effects," she said. "I don't want to ruin my life. I've seen too many people screw up."

Most of the teenagers who said they had used marijuana believe they would face severe consequences if their parents caught them smoking. But because so many Washington area parents work, students said, they can party at home in the afternoon as long as they take precautions, such as using a window fan to blow out the smoke or making a "blower" -- a paper towel tube stuffed with fabric softener sheets through which they blow the smoke -- to mask the smell.

Many students said they believe that as long as they keep their grades up and stay involved in sports, their parents won't suspect anything. Besides, they agreed, most parents want to believe their children don't use marijuana.

"Most of them don't have a clue," said Lydia Dale, the sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. "If they are high, their parents just assume they're moody."

Parents say dissuading youngsters from trying drugs is difficult, especially for those who smoked marijuana in their younger days. Taking a hard line, they say, would be hypocritical.

Lydia says almost everyone she knows who has been caught by parents asks them the same thing: "I'm sure you did it. Why can't I?"

Photo of Nick Zander by Margaret Thomas, The Washington Post; Photo of Liz Schuster by Juana Arias, The Washington Post

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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