LENOX - A 2013 survey of Lenox middle and high-schoolers by Berkshire United Way shows a surge in marijuana use among older students since 2009, particularly among 12th graders, but declining rates of alcohol consumption.

By and large, substance use by students at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School students was lower than the countywide and national rates, according to Karen Cole, coordinator of youth development for Berkshire United Way, who worked with Jeanne Teasdale of the school's Health and Wellness department.

The Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, conducted with the Berkshire Youth Development Project, was released for the School Committee and the public this week. Berkshire County students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades can take the voluntary, anonymous survey.

Participation rates in Lenox for the February 2013 survey included 67 percent of seniors, 93 percent of 10th graders and 78 percent of eighth graders, Cole said.

"Lenox students continue to report some of the lowest rates of alcohol and drug consumption in the county," Cole observed.

However, some hard drug use countered that trend. "Ecstasy" and its purer form known as "Molly" had been used by nearly 15 percent of Lenox seniors, compared to less than 9 percent countywide and 8 percent nationally.

Various hallucinogens were tried by almost 13 percent of Lenox seniors; the countywide rate was just below 9 percent and the national figure was slightly above 8 percent.

Binge drinking - defined as five or more alcoholic beverages in a row - was reported by nearly 27 percent of Lenox seniors, less than the 32 percent countywide figure and the 21.6 percent national rate. Among the town's 10th graders, close to 23 percent acknowledged binge drinking.

Since 2009, alcohol use among eighth graders in town declined significantly, from 20 percent to 6 percent last year, the survey showed. Students were asked to report their consumption over the 30-day period preceding the survey.

No cigarette smoking was reported by the students, while marijuana use dropped during the four-year period.

About one in three 10th graders had used alcohol during the 30-day period, below the countywide rate but slightly above the national figure. Cigarette use was up since 2009 and marijuana consumption rose during the four-year period.

The spike in marijuana usage was "likely due to the liberalization that happened," Cole commented. "When you get a statewide decriminalization of marijuana, that message trickles down to students. They tend to think that it's not such a bad drug anymore ... so they start to feel much more inclined to use it."

Among seniors, alcohol and marijuana use, as well as cigarette smoking, increased between 2011 and 2013 - lower than the county rate but significantly above national levels for drinking and pot.

Since the survey was taken soon after the November 2012 election, when Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana, a " culture of acceptance" had been built, said Cole.

When 12th-grade students were asked whether they had ever tried alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana - "more than just a sip at dinner or at a religious ceremony," Cole noted - 42 percent of students had tried marijuana in 2013, while 56 percent had consumed alcohol and 42 percent had smoked cigarettes. All those rates were well below countywide and national figures.

Among other findings:

  • High risk factors for substance use among eighth graders include those parents who condone or tolerate smoking or drinking by their children, as well as a low commitment to school: "Students do not see a link between what they are learning and their futures."
  • Among 10th graders, in addition to parental tolerance, students see no harm in using marijuana, and anti-social behavior is rewarded by peers who think they would be considered "cool" if they smoked or drank alcohol.
  • Seniors see a low risk in drug use, and some parents lack rules on drug and alcohol consumption. An inconsistently enforced curfew means parents don't know where their children are and whom they are with. Students see themselves as unlikely to be caught, with minimal consequences even if they are.
  • Smoking marijuana once or twice a week would pose a moderate or great risk of harm, according to 46 percent of 10th graders and nearly 33 percent of seniors. Among 10th-grade students, 51 percent believe that if they smoke marijuana, their friends would consider it wrong or very wrong, while 55 percent of 12th graders had the same view.

A presentation open to teens and adults throughout the county, "Youth Chronic Marijuana Use: What's the Big Deal," is scheduled at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St., on Wednesday, March 19, at 7 p.m. The free public community meeting features Rick Cresta, a licensed social worker who teaches at Boston University.

"We're hoping to have standing room only at the Duffin Auditorium," said Schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II. "We have to team up with parents because kids have to hear a unified message. ... Let's face it, this is not math class or our core curriculum, but it's just as important when we're dealing with young kids."

The program includes identifying biases about marijuana; an exploration of reasons underlying its use; the physical, behavioral, psychological and emotional impact of chronic marijuana use on teens; and a discussion of strategies to engage youth in exploration about their use without increasing defensiveness.

Cresta will talk about how parents can discuss marijuana with their children - " we know there's a lot of pushback, kids are very vocal about marijuana being natural and less harmful," said Cole.

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto