An annual nationwide survey of drug use among teens released today had some encouraging results, including continued declines or statistically insignificant changes in the use of alcohol, opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers), cocaine, synthetics (K2, Spice and Bath Salts) and inhalants. Cigarette smoking was at its lowest rate since the peak year of 1997.
But researchers and public-health officials expressed concern over a steep decline in the number of teens who perceive marijuana use as risky, saying it “portends more serious challenges in the years to come.” The Monitoring the Future survey, directed by University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and funded through research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that 39.5 percent of 12th-graders view regular marijuana use as harmful, down from last year’s rate of 44.1 percent, and considerably lower than rates from the last two decades.
“Today’s results regarding marijuana are disappointing,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Making matters worse, more teens are now smoking marijuana than smoke cigarettes.”
Marijuana use among teens has been drifting higher in recent years after a decade of steady decline. In 2013, the percent using once or more over the past year rose from 11.4 percent to 12.7 percent among 8th-graders, 28 percent to 29.8 percent among 10th-graders, and remained steady among 12th-graders at 36.4 percent.
In 2012, the survey added questions about where students are getting their marijuana. In states that have passed medical marijuana laws, 34 percent of 12th-graders say that one of their sources is another person’s medical marijuana prescription, and 6 percent say they get it from their own prescription.
The results suggest that “regulation schemes that have been promoted by the marijuana legalization lobby are not succeeding in preventing the diversion of marijuana into the hands of young people, as was promised to the voters,” Kerlikowske said during a telephone press conference.
The word is out
The drop in the use of synthetic marijuana among high school seniors – from 11.3 percent last year to 7.9 this year, was the “overwhelming good news,” said Carol Falkowski, who has monitored and reported drug trends in Minnesota for more than 30 years. “It demonstrates that somehow the message has gotten out that this is dangerous and unpredictable. Anyone who has been around someone who has used it has started to see some of those adverse effects. The fact that it’s measurably dropping is very good news.”
But she too was concerned about the marijuana indicators. “The concept of risk and harm have historically been good predictors of marijuana use,” she said in a phone interview. “The more risky people think it is, the less likely they are to use it. And the more harmful people think it is, the less likely they are to use it.”
It’s not a benign substance, Falkowski said. “It affects the parts of the brain related to memory, learning and decision-making. And those are really critical activities for maturation and cognitive, emotional and psychological development.”
Despite the year-to-year variations in teen drug use, she said, parents and others need to remember that “about half of kids are going to try an illegal drug before they get out of high school.” With that single fact, “it’s not really someone else’s child; it could just as likely be your child.” She advised parents to “talk early, talk often, and listen – don’t lecture” and let their kids know that “if they get into trouble, they are on their side.”
Declines in some use
Other results from the study showed:
- A continued decrease in alcohol use. Among 12th-graders, 39.2 percent of seniors reported past-month use, a number that peaked in 1997 at 52.7 percent. Binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past two weeks) dropped for 10th-graders (from 15.6 percent to 13.7 percent).
- A continued decrease in cigarette smoking. For the first time, the percentage of students in all three grades combined who say they smoked in the past month is below 10 percent (9.6 percent) compared with 16.7 percent 10 years ago and 24.7 percent in 1993. However, 21.4 percent of seniors reported smoking tobacco with a hookah in the past year, up from 18.3 percent in 2012.
- A continued decrease in the commonly prescribed painkillers OxyContin and Vicodin. The 12th-graders showed a significant decrease in Vicodin use and a nonsignificant decrease in OxyContin. The lower grades did not show parallel declines in 2013 for either of these drugs, but use in both grades was well below recent peak levels. Annual prevalence rates in the three grades for OxyContin were 2.0 percent, 3.4 percent and 3.6 percent, and for Vicodin, 1.4 percent, 4.6 percent and 5.3 percent – one-quarter to one-half below what they were in recent peak years.
- A drop in the use of K2 or Spice (synthetic marijuana) from 11.3 percent to 7.9 percent. The use of bath salts (amphetamine-like synthetics) was at 1 percent in all three grades. This corresponded with a sharp increase in the perception of risk.
- A continued decrease in the use of cocaine and heroin, with 12th-graders at 0.6 percent – down from 1.5 percent in 2000 and down from a peak of 6.2 percent in 1999.
About the study
National samples of 40,000 to 50,000 students in three grades (8, 10 and 12) have been surveyed every year since 1991. The study was designed and is directed by a team of research professors at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and is funded through research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse – one of the National Institutes of Health.