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Despite the dawn of a new era legalizing recreational use of cannabis by adults, marijuana use among middle and high school students continued to decline in California in 2016 and 2017, a new state-funded health survey shows.

Only 4.2 percent of seventh graders reported ever using marijuana, according to the 16th biennial California Healthy Kids Survey, which was conducted between 2015 and 2017 and released this week.

Researchers found a marked decline in teen marijuana use over the past four years, from 10 percent of seventh grade students in the 2011-13 survey to 7.9 percent in 2013-15. Similar declines were found among students in grades nine and 11.

Pro-cannabis groups claim the latest survey is evidence that marijuana legalization does not lead to increased use among school-age children. California voters legalized adult use, possession and cultivation of marijuana immediately after they approved Proposition 64 on Nov. 8, 2016, although retail sales of recreational cannabis did not begin until Jan. 1, 2018.

Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML, said she was encouraged by the survey results, especially the fact that the youngest age groups showed the most dramatic declines. The survey results fly in the face of speculation that legalization would lead to increased use among children.

“Recreational use hasn’t caused any increase, and it’s actually causing a drop,” Komp said. “I hope and expect the trend will continue.”

But the researchers who conducted the survey said the jury is still out on whether marijuana legalization in California is causing the recent declines. The latest survey was conducted prior to the legalization of adult retail sales, and the previous 2011-13 decline was before legalization.

What’s more, the survey method was changed in 2011-13, extending the data collection period from about six months to two school years, said Gregory Austin, senior advisor of WestEd’s health and human development program. The new data collection period has led to greater school participation in the survey and therefore improvements in the survey sample, Austin said.

The past two survey cycles suggest declines in the use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, as well as frequent and heavy use, such as binge drinking. The latest survey found current use of alcohol, marijuana and any other drug within the past 30 days had all declined 2 to 6 percentage points across the three grade levels.

There was also a decline in the general perception that marijuana and alcohol were easy to get, and there was evidence that student disapproval of alcohol and marijuana use has increased, most notably for younger students, the report found.

Sonoma County Superintendent Steve Herrington said he was encouraged by the results of the recent surveys, though he pointed to greater education and public health campaigns by organizations such as Health Action, a local private-public partnership aimed at improving health and well-being.

“I’d like to think this county is making concerted effort through its Health Action council and plan, which basically delineates education as the primary intervention for social drug and alcohol usage,” Herrington said.

Komp agreed that education is key to getting kids to delay the use of alcohol and cannabis until they are of age. “I think kids are figuring out that it’s smarter to stay away from mind-altering substances and cigarettes while they’re young,” she said.

Komp said the survey, which also examined student well-being issues such as engagement, violence and safety, and mental health, pointed to more crucial issues than marijuana use. She said she was shocked to find that a quarter to a third of middle and high school students reported feelings of incapacitating chronic sadness or hopelessness. Sixteen percent of ninth and 11th graders reported seriously contemplating suicide.

Though these figures have declined in the latest survey, Komp said they are cause for serious concern.

“We’ve got so many bigger things to worry about than if a few kids are experimenting with marijuana,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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