A bartender pours a pint of draft beer at the Avery Brewing Company on in Boulder, Colo. (Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera file)

Weed replacing alcohol as substance of choice for some teens

Bennett Wright tried vodka once, at a friend’s house, and it didn’t taste good.

Unlike legions of bygone teenagers who grimaced and took another swig figuring it was part of growing up and they’d get used to it, Wright stopped there.

“I just saw no fun in it,” said Wright, a North Bethesda, Maryland, resident who is 16 and doesn’t drink alcohol of any kind. “There’s just no appeal to me, and I just don’t understand why kids do it. All of my good friends don’t drink, and my girlfriend’s the same.”

If that sounds counterintuitive to those who were teenagers in the mid- to late-20th century, it fits right onto the curve of teenagers’ proclivities in recent years.

A study released last week in the journal Child Development found teens are increasingly delaying activities that had long been seen as rites of passage into adulthood, including alcohol consumption. Over the past four decades the portion of teenagers who have tried it has plunged from 93 percent to 67 percent, according to the study.

Locally, statistics from several police jurisdictions show a decrease in teen criminal activity involving alcohol.

The number of car crashes in Maryland involving drivers aged 16-20 who had used alcohol or drugs fell dramatically in the past decade, from 1,166 in 2002 to 380 in 2014, according to the state’s Highway Safety Office.

In Alexandria, Virginia, the number of alcohol-related charges against teenagers last year was less than half of the number in 2000, according to the police department. Statistics provided by Arlington County and the District of Columbia did not go back far enough to show a trendline.

As students poured out of Woodrow Wilson High School in the District of Columbia on Thursday afternoon, many shrugged when asked about alcohol.

“It’s never appealed to me; I’d rather keep my wits about me,” said Olivia Wood, 14, a freshman.

Charlie Wash, 17, a defensive end on the varsity football team, said his friends drink but he has no interest. “I never really needed it to have fun,” he said. “It’s not something I put on my bucket list.”

In an era when young people are under mounting pressure to succeed academically and professionally, teens may be shying away from drinking out of fear it will distract them from that goal.

“If I focus on alcohol, I’m not going to focus on my career,” said Wilson freshman Avery Wright (no relation to Bennett), 14. And she feels no pressure from friends; they don’t drink either.

Some of the change may lie in deeper societal awareness of the dangers of alcohol compared with a generation ago, said Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I don’t think parents knew enough back then,” she said. “They didn’t want their kids to drink, but parents didn’t know enough about how to start that conversation.”

In the 1980s, when her organization began, “drinking alcohol was a late-night joke, it was a punchline,” she said. “You had certain actors that would play the drunk person and everybody thought it was funny. When we realized that we were losing 25,000 people a year, we started looking at it more closely.”

In some cases, parents who grew up in that more alcohol-soaked era don’t realize things have changed. When Bennett Wright’s mother, Jenny Goldstock Wright, was a teenager, she said, “the whole mission was to drink.” So she tried to warn her son that he couldn’t fool her.

“I would say, ‘Believe me, I know what’s going on,’ and he’d say, ‘Mom, that’s not what’s going on,’ ” she said. “That’s not what they do, and I’m thrilled.”

The fact that fewer teens are drinking does not mean they are avoiding all mind-altering substances. Several of those interviewed said alcohol has been supplanted as the substance of choice by marijuana, which became legal to possess and consume in the District nearly three years ago. That, they say, has made it more accessible and more ubiquitous, inside and outside the city limits.

Unwilling to go on the record as users of the drug (the legal age for possession and use in the District is 21), the teens described it as calming and less likely to put them in compromising positions than alcohol. As one put it, after smoking marijuana, “you still have your morals.”

This rang true for Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor who conducted the Child Development study and is the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” “There’s a link between alcohol and aggression, and in that way it’s a very good fit between marijuana and this generation’s psychology,” she said. “Going toward something that would make them more aggressive is really not their style.”

Not all teens are mild-mannered teetotalers. During her junior year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Georgia Gray said her then-boyfriend forced her to down three beers before friends intervened. That was the 18-year-old’s first encounter with drinking, she said.

“I just felt sick and dizzy,” she said. “It kind of freaked me out, not being in control.”

Since starting this year at Towson University, she has seen a lot more alcohol consumption among her peers.

“It feels awkward, because I don’t really want to drink, but everyone else is,” she said.

While she might try champagne sometime after she turns 21, she doesn’t anticipate an adult life of drinking. “I don’t like that altered state of feeling,” she said. “I’m fine with the way I am currently.”