Recent Statistics on Teen Drug Use: Monitoring the Future
With Washington and Colorado recently decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, new ethical and legal quandaries arise over how to negotiate teen drug use. Illicit drug use is rising among teens, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Research shows that approximately nine percent of the overall U.S. population has consumed an illicit drug recently. That a large swath of this nine percent is young teens might be a cause for alarm.
Teen Drug Use
The highest concentration of illicit drug users are older teens and young adults. The top two drugs abused by this age group are alcohol and marijuana. Pharmaceutical drugs, such as Xanax, ranked third and harder drugs like cocaine rounded out the list of top five drugs abused by teens.
Over the last five years, cocaine use has gone down somewhat among teens, but marijuana use rose by over two percent from 2007 to 2011. These figures are troubling due to the obvious effects harder, addictive drugs can have on health; also, the use of tobacco, pharmaceuticals and alcohol takes an economic toll on gross domestic product. Over a half-trillion dollars is squandered due to the use of tobacco, pharmaceuticals and alcohol, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
From a purely financial standpoint, teen drug abuse has ripple effects and consequences for health care costs and lost domestic productivity.
By the Numbers
Over eight percent of the population has used an illicit substance in the last month (i.e. marijuana or crystal methamphetamine), according to recent surveys. Although marijuana’s increase to approximately 18 million users is largely responsible for the uptick in illicit drug consumption since 2002, pharmaceutical drug abuse claims a sizable 6 million users. Among young marijuana users over the last four years, the age of entry into recreational use is decreasing.
Use and Abuse
In recent years 51% of illicit substance initiates (first-time users) were under 18 years old. Among this cadre of users, over one-half report marijuana as their first illicit drug experience. First-time users typically report using marijuana, but use of inhalants and pain relievers has been escalating in recent years among teens. In fact, an astonishing 23.8 percent of young adults reported consuming an illicit substance over the last month. On a less depressing note, teen drinking has declined by approximately three percent from 2002 to 2011. Binge drinking and heavy drinking have also gradually declined among teen populations.
Joe Camel: Less Cool?
For most of the 1990s, Joe Camel helped hawk cigarettes to minors on behalf of Camel Cigarettes. The heyday of Mr. Camel appears to be finished. The rate of teen cigarette use has decreased five percent over the last decade, according to a 2011 study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Monitoring the Future
The Monitoring the Future study received heavy government funding in the hopes that it would demystify teen drug use. The National Institute of Health co-sponsored research that included over 45,000 students in grades 8, 10 and 12. The results indicate that illicit drug use quadruples from 8th grade to 12th grade. That is, the former demographic shows a relatively unconcerning 8 percent use whereas over one-quarter of 12th graders report using an illicit substance in the last month. An illicit drug is essentially a psychoactive substance other than alcohol or tobacco used unlawfully and without psychiatric supervision.
Research Findings on Teen Use
The National Institute of Drug Abuse recently forwarded a study concerning teen drug use and intelligence. The study found that individuals who abused marijuana in their teen years suffered a significant blunting of IQ score. That is, teen marijuana abusers reported a loss of eight IQ points. Those studied actually met the criteria for marijuana dependence in their teen years.
A more longitudinal study spearheaded by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that inveterate cannabis use is associated with neuropsychosocial deficits later in life. The study found that persistent use before age 18 is linked to serious harm to a person’s memory, intelligence and ability to learn. The study controlled for education and other confounds. That said, these findings are disconcerting as over one-half of teens dabble with cannabis, and the blunting of intelligence and memory is apparently irreversible. The study did have one upside: those who started using cannabis after 18 did not report severe deficits in intelligence and memory.
Gateway Drug Theory
The Gateway Drug Theory is heavily enmeshed with drug regulation and cannabis use. Since the 1950s, the U.S. government has attempted to correlate early use of cannabis with later use of harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. According to the theory, cannabis is a gateway to more insidious addictions.
A surprising amount of studies, however, indicate teen tobacco use is a far better predictor of hard drug use than teen marijuana use. A 2005 meta-analysis showed that pre-existing traits may predispose teen users to addiction to harder drugs. The research demonstrates that exposure to underground drug cultures during one’s teens is more predictive of later hard drug use than teen marijuana use.
These findings make sense in light of the finding than one-half of teens try marijuana, yet only a minority of these users report using hard drugs in longitudinal studies. Nonetheless, the 2005 meta-analysis showed that social context and individual temperament were more predictive of hard drug use than teen marijuana use. To this day, the correlation between teen marijuana use and later hard drug use is tenuous at best.
Binge Drinking and Teens
Although binge drinking is down among teens, consuming alcohol with abandon is still considered a major public health issue. Approximately 40 percent of 12th graders have experimented with alcohol, but only a minority develop dependency to alcohol later in life. Nonetheless, drinking during adolescence is neurotoxic and it may predispose young adults towards alcoholism. Recent research, in fact, indicates college binge drinkers have a 1900 percent higher risk of developing alcoholism than non-binge drinkers. In other words, young adults have a 19-fold increased risk of developing a dependence on alcohol if they consume five or more drinks more than three times per week (binge drinking).
Another troubling finding vis-a-vis young adults and binge drinking is that binge drinking is associated with sudden death, stroke and alcohol poisoning. Studies show that teen binge drinking increases stroke risk by 1000 percent. Teen binge drinking also worsens intelligence, metabolism, blood pressure and lipid profiles.
Teens and Pharmaceuticals
The three most abused pharmaceuticals among teen populations are Adderall, Vicodin and OxyContin. Both Adderall and Vicodin are used by approximately seven percent of teens, respectively. Pharmaceuticals are especially dangerous for teens to take because drugs like Vicodin are often consumed without psychiatric supervision or an accurate knowledge of proper dosage.
Adolescents and Drugs
Recent findings on teen drug use warn against binge drinking and marijuana dependence. The former is associated with health risks like stroke and alcoholism whereas the latter is linked to learning deficits. Although only eight percent of the general population has used an illicit substance recently, many teens who dabble with marijuana, alcohol and pharmaceuticals are at increased risk of future health problems.