The Boston area is the nation's capital for marijuana use, according to a federal study that found that more than 12 percent of the area's youths and adults smoked pot. Public health officials and other observers chalked the high ranking up to the large population of college students and to relatively liberal attitudes toward marijuana in the region.
''We have known for a number of years that drug use rates in the state are some of the highest in the country," said Michael Botticelli, assistant commissioner for substance abuse services at the state Department of Public Health. ''This survey allows us to target our resources and look at areas of the Commonwealth with a concentrated effort."
Five of the 15 areas with the highest rates of marijuana use nationwide were in Massachusetts. Southeast and Central Massachusetts followed the Boston area, which for the purposes of the study included Suffolk County and parts of Norfolk County. Massachusetts also reported some of the highest usage rates of alcohol and cocaine.
Douglass Wright. a researcher on the study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the peak ages for drug use nationally coincide with the college years, between 18 and 25. After that, he said, "many people begin to settle down and drop off their use."
Wright said marijuana use was highlighted because it is the most commonly used illicit drug and is considered a gateway to using other drugs. The study participants were age 12 and older; Wright said that children of that age are competent to complete such a survey and that research shows people who start using drugs around the early teens are the most likely to become addicted.
Local youth workers agree that teenagers in the Boston area are using marijuana at high rates. ''It is the acceptable drug, the cool drug," said Chris Sumner, who works with teenagers as executive director of the Boston Ten Point Coalition. ''Kids are smart enough to realize that, unless it's a certain amount, [they are] not trafficking. It's easy to disguise, and there are not a lot of real big laws around using it."
The study surveyed 70,000 respondents nationally between 1999 and 2001. Interviewers brought laptops to participants' homes so they could fill out the survey in private. In Massachusetts, 2,700 people were randomly selected and interviewed, 360 in the Boston area. While more than 12 percent of respondents in the Boston area reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days, the number statewide was 9 percent. Nationally, 5 percent said they had smoked pot.
Critics said that government studies on drug use, especially among young people, are inherently flawed.
''They really have no idea how many people in the country are using marijuana," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a non-profit organization that advocates making marijuana use legal. ''Boston is thought of as a tolerant and liberal place, so of course rates are going to be higher."
St. Pierre, who grew up in Amherst and Chatham, said that living in areas of the country where marijuana usage is tolerated increases the likelihood that people will report using the drug, thereby skewing usage rates to cultural norms instead of actual use.
The results of the study are consistent with those of studies by the Department of Public Health, Botticelli said. The reluctance of parents to talk about drug use is also a factor, he said. ''We've seen in other studies that parents are not talking to their kids about marijuana and other drug use."
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration distributes block grants to state health departments to fund treatment and prevention efforts. Wright said the study could help policymakers pinpoint problem areas.