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By Eric Stirgus March 7, 2012

Marijuana use claim close to the mark

Most Georgians missed it, but there was a presidential debate here after all.

Actually, it was a forum, and the candidates weren’t the Republicans vying for the White House. (CNN canceled a debate set for last Thursday in Atlanta when GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul said they had other plans.)

These candidates were Libertarians, five of them, and they answered questions from a moderator for about an hour at their party’s Georgia state convention Feb. 25 in Athens. The Truth-O-Meter started swaying when Gary Johnson, who won a straw poll afterward with 79 percent of the vote, was asked a question about legalizing marijuana.

Johnson, who believes in legalizing marijuana, said an individual’s drug problem should be handled by his or her family -- not the criminal justice system. He then offered this statistic:

"Fifty percent of the [high school] graduating class of the year 2012 will have smoked marijuana or have done some illegal drugs," said Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico.

We wondered whether Johnson, who initially tried running as a Republican for president this year, was correct?

For the record, Johnson doesn’t believe teenagers should have access to marijuana. Johnson does believe marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and thinks the money the federal government spends on marijuana enforcement could be better spent "against the individuals committing real crimes against society."

The Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps data on marijuana use. According to the CDC’s most recent data, from 2009, nearly 46 percent of 12th-graders had smoked marijuana at least once. Nearly 51 percent of 12th-grade boys had used marijuana, while the percentage of girls was lower, at just over 40 percent. In Georgia, the percentage of all 12th-graders who tried marijuana at least once was nearly identical to the national average.

The CDC figures showed the following for other illicit drug use by 12th-graders in 2009:

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  • Nearly 8 percent had used cocaine.
  • 2.5 percent had tried heroin.
  • About 4 percent used methamphetamines.
  • 8 percent had tried Ecstasy.
  • Slightly more than 3 percent had used steroids.

There was no overall figure for the percentage of 12th-graders who used any illegal drug.

The federal National Institutes of Health has data on its website that says 42 percent of 12th-graders in 2009 had tried marijuana. The percentage had actually declined from nearly 48 percent in 2002. Officials there provided PolitiFact Georgia some data for all types of illicit drug use by 12th-graders.

"In 2011, 50% of high school seniors reported having tried an illicit drug at some time,
40% used one or more drugs in the past 12 months, and 25% used one or more drugs in the prior 30 days," Shirley Simson, a media specialist for the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, told us via email.

Simson said there’s been an increase in the past four years, primarily due to more teenagers smoking marijuana.

The National Center for Education Statistics has data on its website that says about 47 percent of the graduating class of 2009 had tried any type of illicit drug. The percentage has declined each year since 2000, when 54 percent of high school seniors had tried drugs.

We couldn’t find data about the percentage of high school seniors graduating this year who’ve smoked marijuana or have done any kind of illicit drug. The studies we’ve found show drug use among 12th-graders hovers around the 50 percent mark, with a slight decline in recent years. We rate his claim as Mostly True.

Our Sources

Libertarian Party of Georgia presidential candidate forum, Feb. 25, 2012

Email from National Institute on Drug Abuse spokeswoman Shirley Simson, March 2, 2012

Gary Johnson 2012 website, drug reform policy

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures on high school risk behavior

National Institutes of Health drug abuse facts

National Center for Education Statistics, percentage of high school seniors reporting drug use

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Marijuana use claim close to the mark

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