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By Michael McKinney January 20, 2013

Protect Families First claims children typically try marijuana at age 12

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., recently organized a national group to oppose the legalization of marijuana. Project SAM, for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, also calls for limiting medical marijuana use to non-smoked forms of the drug.

After the launch of Project SAM, a Providence group called Protect Families First took issue with some of Kennedy’s positions.

Protect Families First, which says it supports "progressive family values including pro-family marijuana reform," agreed with Kennedy on the need to increase resources for treatment of drug abuse and prevention. But the group says it supports strictly regulating, not prohibiting, marijuana use.

The organization also asserted that Kennedy’s position does not address the problem of children’s access to drugs.

In a news release issued Jan. 10 -- the same day Project SAM was announced in Denver -- Protect Families First listed several statistics, including this one: "The average age of first marijuana use is 12, the lowest ever and still declining."

That would mean a fair number of kids even younger than 12 are toking up. We wondered whether it was true.

We contacted Protect Families First, whose executive director, Rebecca McGoldrick, checked the information and sent an e-mail later that day saying the statement was wrong. She said a research intern had gotten confused about the numbers.

McGoldrick provided what she said were corrected statistics, citing a couple of studies. One, a national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency created by Congress in 1992 to reduce impact of substance abuse and mental illness on communities, found the average age of first use of marijuana among people ages 12 to 49 was 17.5 years of age in 2011.

Even though it was clear Protect Families First had made a mistake, we were curious enough to check a few more sources.

We examined several studies, including some that indicated an increase in marijuana use among young people over the past few years.

Monitoring the Future, a project run at the University of Michigan, has surveyed about 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders in the United States annually since the 1970s about various issues, including drug use. It found that more in the 2000s reported trying marijuana during middle school than in the late 1990s, but the percentages fluctuate.

In the 2010 survey, 26 percent of young people said they first smoked marijuana or hashish as high school freshmen. Second to that was the 21.6 percent who said they first smoked it in "grade 7 or 8" -- about ages 12 to 14.

Another report, by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that only 8.1 percent of students nationally first tried marijuana "before age 13 years."

And the Rhode Island Department of Health’s latest health risk survey, from 2011, found that 7.1 percent of Rhode Island high school students reported having tried marijuana before age 13.

Our ruling

Protect Families First said in a news release that "the average age of first marijuana use is 12, the lowest ever and still declining," a statement that grabbed our attention because it seemed so unlikely.

After we called them, the organization said that figure was in error.  And none of the studies we found suggested that 12 was the average age for first marijuana use.

We rate the claim False.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources, "Monitoring the Future: Questionnaire responses from the nation's high school seniors," (individual reference volumes 1996 through 2010), accessed on Jan. 15, 2013, "Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2011, Volume 1, 2011," accessed on Jan. 16, 2013, "2010-2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Model-Based Estimates (50 States and the District of Columbia)," Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, accessed on Jan. 14, 2013, "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -- United States, 2011," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed on Jan. 16, 2013, "2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey data," page 37, Rhode Island Department of Health, accessed on Jan. 17, 2013

Interview and e-mail, Rebecca McGoldrick, co-founder and executive director, Protect Families First, Jan. 14-17, 2013

E-mail, Lloyd D. Johnston, professor, senior research scientist and principal investigator, Monitoring the Future, Jan. 16, 2013

E-mail, Dara Chadwick, spokeswoman, Rhode Island Department of Health, Jan. 17, 2013

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Protect Families First claims children typically try marijuana at age 12

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