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Marijuana data in latest youth survey heighten leaders' concern

December 14, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Synthetic cannabinoids, drop in perceived risk worry federal officials

While the number of potential substances that can attract teen users has grown so large that it threatens to overwhelm the annual survey instrument used for the much-watched Monitoring the Future report, the historical major substances of abuse still capture the greatest share of attention in communities and among national leaders.

The 2011 Monitoring the Future survey, released Dec. 14 in a Washington, D.C. news conference, shows noteworthy declines in youth tobacco and alcohol use but worsening problems with marijuana use (and to a somewhat lesser extent prescription medication misuse).

Federal leaders who addressed the media at the news conference stated that they see numerous challenges in the prevention effort regarding marijuana, from a lack of tailored messages to which parents have access, to some youths’ perception that smoked marijuana must not be harmful because it is being used in some contexts as medicine.

In this year’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) survey, encompassing responses from nearly 47,000 youths in grades 8, 10 and 12 across the country, 36.4% of 12th-graders reported past-year marijuana use, up from 31.5% five years ago. In addition, 6.6% of high school seniors reported using marijuana on at least 20 occasions in the past 30 days; principal investigator Lloyd D. Johnston, PhD, said that figure represents the highest level of regular use in that age group since 1981.

This year’s survey is the 37th Monitoring the Future report. Johnston said several substances were included on the survey questionnaire for the first time this year, such as synthetic marijuana, alcoholic energy drinks, and various forms of smokeless tobacco. Bath salts will be added for 2012.

The latest survey showed a continuation of a longstanding pattern of declining tobacco use at all grade levels. NIDA director Nora D. Volkow, MD, said that daily rates of smoking among youths have declined 60% in the last 15 years.

Yet in addition, a growing popularity of non-cigarette products such as smokeless tobacco products and small cigars present “a growing portfolio of challenge” for anti-tobacco efforts, said Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Moreover, “Every day, more than 3,800 children under 18 smoke their first cigarette. … We need to accelerate, not slow, the declines [in use].”

Alcohol use numbers also are continuing to decline among youths, with overall prevalence at its lowest levels since 1996 and binge drinking among 12th-graders at about half of its level from 30 years ago, federal officials reported.

Yet marijuana trends continue to be moving in the opposite direction, with youths’ perceived risk associated with marijuana use posing a significant concern. In the most recent survey, only 22.7% of high school seniors reported seeing great risk in occasional marijuana smoking (by comparison, 43.4% of 8th-graders saw great risk in occasional marijuana smoking).

The emergence of synthetic cannabinoids such as K2 and Spice also has caused great concern, although Johnston believes regulatory changes that have made the substances used to manufacture these compounds illegal will result in decreases in use in future surveys.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), considers the prevention effort surrounding marijuana use to be particularly challenging for a number of reasons, including the effect of medical marijuana laws on youths’ risk perceptions. Kerlikowske indicated that a possible link between increased marijuana use rates and the presence of medical marijuana laws in certain states is being closely watched.

While the survey showed some declines in use of several other substances, including cocaine, inhalants and misused cough and cold medicines, misuse of prescription pain medications remains at relatively high levels (though largely unchanged from 2010).

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