The national landscape of drug use among the nation’s middle-school and high-school students is showing both signs of promise and trouble ahead, according to The University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future study, released today.
A quick background of the study, one of the nation’s most important for tracking American youths’ drug use and attitudes about drugs: Monitoring the Future follows trends in substance use by surveying more than 40,000 8th, 10th and 12th grade students in about 400 public and private secondary schools across the contiguous 48 states. Now in its 41st year, the study is conducted by a team of research professors at the University of Michigan and is sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. One of the study’s chief limitations is that it surveys only youth who are enrolled in school. Adolescent drug users are at greater risk of dropping out of school, and those who have are not recorded.
First, the signs of improvement found in the most recent study, according to the University’s press release:
“The use of both alcohol and cigarettes reached their lowest points since the study began in 1975. Use of several particularly dangerous illicit drugs — including MDMA (ecstasy, Molly), heroin, amphetamines and synthetic marijuana — also showed a decline this year. Marijuana use, however, remained level.”
So, let’s look at marijuana — the one drug that didn’t report a use rate trending in the right direction. Particularly concerning is that more high school seniors are reporting they smoke pot daily, compared to those who smoke tobacco daily (6 percent of seniors reported daily marijuana use compared to 5.5 percent who reported daily cigarette use). It’s the first time since the survey’s mid-’70s launch that daily marijuana use has surpassed daily cigarette use. Daily or near-daily marijuana use is defined as smoking marijuana on 20 or more occasions in the past 30 days. Those rates stand at 1.1 percent for 8th graders, 3.0 percent of 10th graders and 6.0 percent of 12th graders.
“In other words, one in every 16 or 17 high school seniors is smoking marijuana daily or near daily,” the university explained in its press release. The proportion of young people smoking marijuana this frequently is a matter of serious concern.
Overall, the annual prevalence of marijuana use this year among students in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades — as analyzed by the three grades individually and combined — has remained fairly steady since 2010, the year after the start of commercialized marijuana sales. Again, according to the university: “This year, 12 percent of 8th graders, 25 percent of 10th graders and 35 percent of 12th graders reported using marijuana at least once in the prior 12 months.”
“These rates have changed rather little since 2010, but are from three to six times higher than they were at their low point in 1991,” the university’s researchers explained. Today’s use rates are also higher than those reported in 2008, the year before the start of the boom in marijuana dispensaries in some states.
While students’ perceptions of marijuana have not led to higher use rates in the last five years, their beliefs about pot’s potential to harm have changed. Researchers say that is troubling because declines in the perception of harm traditionally have predicted increases in use. In the most recent survey, 32 percent of seniors said marijuana use could be harmful, compared to 36 percent who reported the same last year (this year’s point is the lowest recorded in the survey’s history). In the last decade, the drop in perceived harm has been precipitous: “the percent seeing a great risk in regular marijuana use has fallen among 8th graders from 74 percent to 58 percent, among 10th graders from 66 percent to 43 percent and among 12th graders from 58 percent to 32 percent,” the researchers reported.
“Perceived risk is usually a deterrent to use, and it is clear that this deterrent has weakened considerably,” said University of Michigan Professor Lloyd Johnston, the study’s principal investigator. “In sum, there is a lot of good news in this year’s results, but the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away.
“We see a cyclical pattern in the more than 40 years of observations we have made with this study,” he added. “When things are much improved is when the country is most likely to take its eye off the issue of drug abuse, as happened in the early 1990s, and fail to deter the incoming generation of young people from using drugs, including the many new drugs that inevitably come along.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a policy group opposed to marijuana’s legalization (Dr. Thurstone, whose site you’re reading, serves the nonprofit organization as a medical advisor.) honed in on the prospect of those new drugs — particularly the various forms in which young people now use THC, marijuana’s active ingredient. SAM’s leaders questioned whether the survey’s wording might have affected outcomes — and, as a result, also underreported the country’s rates of youth marijuana use.
“Of most concern is (the study’s) exclusive focus on use of ‘marijuana/hashish,'” SAM leaders stated in a press release. “The term is not well-defined given the explosion of novel marijuana products. The survey showed that kids in ‘medical marijuana’ states use far more edible products than kids not in those states.”
“This year’s survey shows how, in an era of falling overall drug, cigarette, and alcohol use — an achievement made possible by years of effort and millions of dollars of public funding — marijuana use among kids remains strong,” said Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy advisor who now serves as SAM’s president. “We should look no further than the powerful marijuana industry that is promoting marijuana use and selling products like marijuana sodas and gummy bears. It has counteracted the hard work and advances made by drug prevention advocates, all in favor of financial gain.”
“Medical research is very clear that marijuana is both addictive and harmful,” noted Dr. Stuart Gitlow, immediate past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, who also serves as a SAM medical advisor. “One in six adolescents that use marijuana develop an addiction, and use is associated with lower IQ, lower grades, and higher dropout rates in that same population. It is therefore of significant concern that this year’s study may actually underreport marijuana use and downplay its impact.”
Another area of concern: use of e-cigarettes among youth is becoming more prevalent. More teens reported using the devices for reasons including curiosity, appreciation of the flavorful taste and because of their declining perception in the use of e-cigarettes. The devices are also used for the consumption of concentrated THC, which typically takes the form of an oil-like substance. Young users may not consider “vaping” THC the same as smoking marijuana/hashish.
“Vaping is the new, preferred method of delivering addictive substances into the body and we really do not have any research to tell us the side effects of this new trend,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, a nonprofit focused on drug education and drug-use prevention. “It is clear that these issues need immediate attention at the policy and prevention level. However, as valuable as the information is in this survey, there is no real plan offered by the government on how these issues will be comprehensively addressed.”
UPDATE: And now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reporting that Colorado now leads the country in past-month youth marijuana use, after legalizing marijuana in 2012.
“Move over, Rhode Island. Now that Colorado has legalized and widely commercialized marijuana, their children use marijuana regularly more than children in any other state,” remarked Dr. Kevin Sabet, President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former White House drug advisor.
Christine Tatum is a veteran journalist — and Dr. Thurstone’s wife. She is the co-author of an perspective series about marijuana legalization for The (Colorado Springs) Gazette. See www.gazette.com/clearingthehaze.