Changing attitudes toward legalizing marijuana have trickled down to teenagers, who see smoking pot as a natural or medicinal pastime and ignore the risks associated with the drug, say local addiction experts.

Changing attitudes toward legalizing marijuana have trickled down to teenagers, who see smoking pot as a natural or medicinal pastime and ignore the risks associated with the drug, say local addiction experts.

"How do we make the case that this 'medicine' has risks associated with it?" said Michele Morales, addiction services manager for Jackson County Health and Human Services. "We are really in a tricky spot."

Sixty percent of high school seniors nationwide do not view regular marijuana use as harmful, according to a 2013 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That's up from 56 percent in 2012.

According to a 2012 Oregon Student Wellness Survey, 54 percent of 11th-graders in Jackson County — 48 percent statewide — did not perceive there to be moderate or great risk to smoking marijuana once or twice a week.

The same survey also revealed that 50 percent of high school students in the county had experimented with the drug by the 11th grade.

"Kids today don't see it like we did when we were younger, when it was a crime to possess it," said Lt. Kevin Walruff of Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement. "Kids today see it as being healthy or see it as medicine."

Southern Oregon University students interviewed Tuesday said smoking marijuana is not a new issue.

"Kids start drinking really heavily in high school," said Satchel Pondolfino, an SOU junior. "I don't see marijuana as being very different. High school is kind of the time when kids start experimenting."

"I got a 3.2 (GPA) in high school, and I have a 3.2 now. I smoked then and I don't smoke now," said Bryan Coghill, a senior studying criminology at SOU.

During the 2011-12 fiscal year, there were 308 juvenile cases involving possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. There were 12 drug-related misdemeanors and 73 drug-related felonies among juveniles, said Joe Ferguson, deputy director of juvenile services.

Possession of one to four ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Anything above four ounces is a felony without an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program card, Walruff said.

A decade ago, there were fewer marijuana violations among juveniles — 146 — but more misdemeanors and felonies, which could be attributed to stricter laws then, Ferguson said.

To date, 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws sanctioning the use of medical marijuana. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults 21 and older.

Joe Cramer, assistant principal of North Medford High School and 30-year educator, said he has not noticed a significant increase in drug-related incidents at the school since Oregon legalized medical marijuana in 1998.

"I thought that when the medical marijuana thing happened, we would be inundated," Cramer said.

At North Medford, there were 22 drug-related, on-campus violations recorded in 2009-10, 32 in 2010-11, 31 in 2011-12, 15 in 2012-13 and more than 20 this year, he said.

Although there wasn't the rise he expected, Cramer said there has been a noticeable change in attitude toward the drug in the last few years.

Comments Cramer frequently hears from students include, "It's not worse than alcohol," "It's natural," "I don't see why it shouldn't be legalized," and "It's almost good for you."

Students caught using are suspended for 10 days the first time, but the school typically offers to reduce the sentence to five days if the student agrees to undergo treatment with an OnTrack Inc. counselor, Cramer said.

Students are expelled if they are caught using a second time or if they are caught dealing, he said.

"When they are referred to us, either because of minor-in-possession charge or by the juvenile system, we conduct a UA (urinalysis)," said Carol Law, OnTrack's director of youth programs.

Law said the level of TCH, the chemical in marijuana that causes the high, has skyrocketed in users she's tested.

"About seven or eight years ago, 800 or 900 nanograms of THC per milliliter of fluid was really high," Law said.

About five years ago, 1 in 20 people being drug tested had levels of 2,000 or greater, Law estimated.

"Now that number is about 1 in 5," she said, adding those with such high levels of THC in their system suffer withdrawals of extreme anxiety and agitation when they stop using.

Law said the potency of marijuana has increased and will likely continue to increase as dispensaries come into the picture. Dispensaries will compete with one another to produce "a better product" with a higher potency, she said.

Monday marked the start of a new medical marijuana dispensary program established by House Bill 3460. And on that first day, Oregon Health Authority received 289 applications for medical marijuana dispensaries, including 18 from Jackson County — the third-highest number in the state behind Multnomah and Lane counties.

The higher the potency, the more likely the drug is to impact brain development, Morales said.

"The prefrontal cortex is forming up until the age of 25 and is responsible for impulse control, decision making and the ability to weigh pros and cons," she said.

Students using marijuana are more likely to exhibit deficits in learning, memory and motivation, she added.

"Delay, delay, delay, that's the most important message for youth," she said. "The later someone waits to try it the lower their chances are of developing a problem. ... Adolescence is a time when we want them to be gearing up for life. We want science scores, math scores and graduation rates to be going up. It's not the time to drop out because of decreased motivation."

OnTrack offers prevention programs at local middle schools, intervention programs at the high schools and educational presentations throughout the year.

One of the tactics Law uses is to ask youth to describe a 40-year-old marijuana user.

During a telephone interview with Law on Tuesday, she asked kids in the hall outside her OnTrack office to describe a "40-year-old pothead."

Lowlife, haggard, scraggly hair, run down, confused, washed up, skinny, moody, and no common sense were some of the adjectives the kids used.

When kids argue that marijuana is "natural," Law said she reminds them that the plant is often genetically modified and treated with chemicals in order to get higher THC levels.

Kids Unlimited presents Project Alert, a substance abuse prevention curriculum, at local elementary and middle schools. Before a student can participate, his or her parents must sign a permission slip, said Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited.

"Starting four or five years ago, we had parents who would not sign the permission slip and were contesting the curriculum was inaccurate because it presented marijuana from just one position," he said. "That's the first time we've been confronted with that."

Todd Tremblay, a junior at North Medford, said it's harder for minors to find a compliant adult to purchase cigarettes or alcohol for them than it is to find a dealer willing to sell marijuana.

If marijuana were legalized, he thought the dealers might begin selling legally from dispensaries.

"Who would want to sell it illegally if you can sell it legally?" said Tremblay's friend Cory Pickard, also a junior at North. "You wouldn't want to get your license revoked."

"I know way more teenagers who smoke marijuana than drink alcohol," Tremblay added.

"I don't see why it's such a big deal."

Other students leaving North Medford Tuesday said they had family members who use it medicinally. Some said their parents used it recreationally.

Leean Huber, a sophomore at North, said using marijuana seemed "normal" for high school kids.

"Some kids just do it to relax," she said. "I know kids who are straight-A students who use it."

When asked about the harmful effects of marijuana, North senior Noah Lamproe responded, "What harmful effects?"

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or Follow her at