Drug Use Declines Among American Youth: Past-Year Marijuana Use Remains Relatively Stable

NEW YORK:  The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Study (MTF), an annual survey tracking teen drug abuse among approximately 45,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th- graders, shows some positive inroads and encouraging news in substance use trends among American youth. The new survey data show a continued long-term decline in the use of many substances, including alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, Ecstasy, as well as the misuse of some prescription medications, among 8th- 10th-, and 12th graders. The MTF survey is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Findings from the survey indicate that past-year use of any illicit drug was the lowest in the survey’s history for 8th graders, while past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana is down from recent peaks across all three grades. Use of several illicit drugs – including MDMA (known as Ecstasy or Molly), heroin, cocaine and synthetic marijuana – showed a noted decline in this year’s data. Marijuana use among our nation’s youth remained relatively stable; though teens’ perception of risk associated with marijuana use continue to soften.

Marijuana Use Remained Stable Among Teens in the U.S.
While the survey found that past-month marijuana use among 8th graders dropped significantly in 2016 to 5.4 percent, from 6.5 percent in 2015, almost a quarter of high school seniors (22.5 percent) report past-month marijuana use and 6 percent report daily use; both measures remained relatively stable from last year. Similarly, rates of marijuana use in the past year among 10th graders also remained stable compared to 2015, but are at their lowest levels in over two decades.

The new data also confirm that teens who live in states where medical marijuana is legal report a higher use of marijuana edibles. Among 12th graders reporting marijuana use in the past year, 40.2 percent consumed marijuana in food in states with medical marijuana laws compared to 28.1 percent in states without such laws.

Attitudes toward marijuana use have softened, but perception of harm is not necessarily linked to rates of use. For example, 44 percent of 10th graders perceive regular marijuana smoking as harmful (“great risk”), but only 2.5 percent of them used marijuana daily in 2016. This compares to a decade ago when 64.9 percent of 10th graders perceived marijuana as harmful and 2.8 percent of them used it daily. The number of eighth graders who say marijuana is easy to get is at its lowest in the history of the survey, at 34.6 percent.

Teen Misuse and Abuse of Rx Medicines Trending Downward, But Still at High Levels
MTF also found although non-medical use of prescription opioids remains a serious issue in the adult population, teen use of prescription opioid pain relievers is trending downward among 12th graders with a 45 percent drop in past-year use compared to five years ago. The past-year rate for non-medical use of all opioid pain relievers among 12th graders is at 4.8 percent, down significantly from its peak of 9.5 percent in 2004, while the past-year non-medical use of Vicodin among high school seniors is now lower than misuse of OxyContin (2.9 percent compared to 3.4 percent). Past-year non-medical use of Adderall, a prescription stimulant used to treat Attention Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is relatively stable at 6.2 percent for 12th graders. However, non-medical use of Ritalin dropped to 1.2 percent, compared to 2 percent last year, and a peak of 5.1 percent in 2004.

Eighth graders alone reported an increase in misuse of over-the-counter cough medicine at 2.6 percent, up from 1.6 percent in 2015, but still lower than the peak of 4.2 percent when first measured in 2006.

“While we are pleased to see that marijuana use has stabilized among teens, 6 percent of high school seniors reporting that they smoke marijuana every day is still unacceptably high. The MTF survey also found that more teens report using marijuana edibles in states where marijuana has been legalized and a softening of attitudes about the dangers associated with this drug – this is a real cause for concern,” said Marcia Lee Taylor, President and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “The recent declines in the abuse of prescription opioids among teens are also encouraging. But the persistently high percentage of teens who report abusing stimulants is also worrisome. The Partnership has been working for quite some time through our Medicine Abuse Project to help educate parents, families and communities about the risks of medicine abuse and we are glad to see continued progress.”

Taylor added, “It’s important to remember that while today’s news about substance use among teens is mostly positive, we cannot let that take our focus off of the prescription drug and heroin crisis among other age groups across the U.S. As a country, we need to focus more of our attention and resources on early intervention and addressing substance use disorders, rather than cleaning up a problem once it has reached epidemic levels.”

The 2016 MTF survey of approximately 40,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades also found:

  • Inhalant use, usually the only category of drugs used more by younger teens than their older counterparts, was down significantly among eighth graders compared to last year, with past year use at 3.8 percent, compared to 4.6 percent in 2015. Past-year inhalant use peaked among eighth graders in 1995 at 12.8 percent.
  • Use of MDMA (known as Ecstasy and Molly) has been falling since 2010 and is at its lowest point for all three grades in the history of the MTF survey. Past-year use is down among 8th graders to just 1 percent, from last year’s 1.4 percent.
  • Cigarette smoking continued a decades­ long decline. A large drop in the use of tobacco cigarettes was seen in all three grades, with a long-term decline from their peak use more than 20 years ago. For example, in 1991, when MTF first measured cigarette smoking, 10.7 percent of high school seniors smoked a half pack or more a day. Twenty-five years later, that rate has dropped to only 1.8 percent. MTF indicates that marijuana and electronic vaporizers (e-cigarettes) are more popular than regular tobacco cigarettes. The past-month rates among 12th graders are 12.5 percent for vaporizers and 10.5 percent for cigarettes.
  • Alcohol use by the nation’s teens also continued its long-term decline in 2016, with the rate of teens reporting they have “been drunk” in the past year at the survey’s lowest rates ever. For example, 37.3 percent of 12th graders reported they have been drunk at least once, down from a peak of 53.2 percent in 2001.
  • The proportion of secondary school students using heroin has fallen gradually over the past few years, and it continued a gradual decrease in all three grades in 2015. Heroin rates remain low with teens still in school and in the history of the MTF survey, heroin (with a needle) rates have never been higher than 0.7 percent among 12th graders, as seen in 2010.

Leading Anti-Marijuana Group Got Its Facts Wrong

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: “HHS finds heavy marijuana use soaring among young people,” the press release from Project SAM, the nation’s leading anti-marijuana legalization group, said. “Today, the Department of Health and Human Services found that heavy marijuana use among monthly users – defined as 20 or more days of marijuana use per month – significantly increased among 12-to-17 year-olds in 2014 compared to 2013.”

Alarming findings indeed — but untrue.

Here are the actual numbers (highlighted below), which appear in data fromthe latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which just came out this week. In 2013, roughly 451,000 teens smoked marijuana 20 or more days per month. In 2014, that number dropped to 400,000, according to the survey’s estimates. That number is, in fact, the lowest it’s been since at least 2009.

That drop is not statistically significant, according to the survey. In other words, the number of kids smoking 20-plus days per month is essentially flat year-over-year, and has been for awhile. So how did Project SAM go from that to “heavy marijuana use soaring among young people?” It turns out they were looking at the wrong part of the report.