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Leaders zero in on troubling marijuana data in youth survey

December 19, 2012
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Addiction policy and research leaders unveiling the results of the 2012 Monitoring the Future survey on Dec. 19 reported that marijuana use levels remain unacceptably high among youths, and a plummeting perception of risk from using marijuana appears to concern these individuals even more.

This latest version of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA’s) annual look at substance use trends among the nation’s 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders finds that among high school seniors, only 20.6% see occasional use of marijuana as harmful and only 44.1% see regular use of marijuana as harmful. Those figures are at their respective lowest points since 1983 and 1979.

Several of the leaders who spoke at a morning news conference to announce the overall survey results suggested that national discussions around medical marijuana use and broader marijuana legalization are challenging adults as they make the case to children that marijuana use is harmful—even at a time when new research is demonstrating that marijuana has detrimental effects on brain circuitry and on cognitive performance.

NIDA director Nora D. Volkow, MD, said in response to a reporter’s question that she likens the perception issue around marijuana to what has been observed surrounding prescription medication misuse—that youths perceive those drugs to be less risky by virtue of the fact that they are legally prescribed substances. She added that the illegality of a substance “is a deterrent [to use] for many individuals.”

Progress on alcohol, tobacco

The attention to marijuana in the public statements issued on the day of the survey’s release might obscure to an extent many of the more positive signs from the survey about adolescent substance use patterns overall. Lloyd D. Johnston, PhD, the survey’s longtime principal investigator, pointed out in the press briefing that both tobacco and alcohol use are now at historic lows, and that even marijuana use leveled off somewhat in 2012 after several years of steady increases.

“Alcohol use is at its lowest levels we’ve seen in the life of the study,” said Johnston, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. “That is a pretty dramatic change,” given how intertwined alcohol use is in American culture.

Among 8th-graders, around 29% reported that they had used alcohol at some point, down from around 33% in the 2011 survey. Among 10th-graders, lifetime use of alcohol was at 54% in the latest survey; 15 years ago that percentage was 72%.

Cigarette smoking has seen similar long-term declines in the population surveyed in Monitoring the Future. In 1996, lifetime use of cigarettes was at nearly 50% for 8th-graders and 61.2% for 10th-graders. In the latest survey, the corresponding numbers were 15.5% and 27.7%, respectively.

In fact, as Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) director R. Gil Kerlikowske pointed out in the media briefing, “More youths are now reporting past-month use of marijuana than past-month use of cigarettes.”

Among 8th-graders, the prevalence of daily use of marijuana is at 1.1%, and use sometime in the past month is at 6.5%. But by 12th grade, those numbers increase to 6.5% for daily use (up from 5.1% five years ago) and nearly 23% for past-month use.

The Partnership at Drugfree.org on Dec. 19 joined a chorus of groups and individuals issuing warnings about declining perceived risk of marijuana use among youths and the dangerous consequences it can bring. “Heavy use of marijuana—particularly beginning in adolescence—brings the risk of serious problems and our own data have shown it can lead to involvement with alcohol and other drugs as well,” Partnership president and CEO Steve Pasierb said in a statement. “Kids who begin using drugs or alcohol as teenagers are more likely to struggle with substance use disorders when compared to those who start using later in life.”

To offer a real-life example of this, organizers of the media event invited young adult Chris Leibowitz, who has been sober since going into treatment in 2010 following two jail stays, to discuss his progression from marijuana use beginning at age 13 to use of other substances and eventually to dealing. He said he believes he would not have tried cocaine for the first time at age 16 had he not been high at the time it was offered to him at a party.

“My drug of choice was, ‘Yes, I’ll take it,’” Leibowitz said.

Other trends

Here are some of the other findings reported in this year’s Monitoring the Future survey, which encompassed responses from more than 45,000 students in 395 public and private schools:

  • In the survey’s first examination of use trends around the stimulant-like substances known as “bath salts,” only 1.3% of 12th-graders reported use of the substances. “Bath salts have not made a very serious inroad at this point,” Johnston said in the press briefing.
  • Use trends are down for substances such as inhalants and Ecstasy, but synthetic marijuana has made significant inroads in recent years and is now the second most prevalent illegal substance among 8th- and 10th-graders.
  • Prescription drug abuse results were mixed. While past-month misuse of prescription pain relievers is down among high school seniors, misuse of the prescription stimulant Adderall continues a steady climb among that group.