The good news is that teenage drug and alcohol use, overall, is down. This is according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF), which released the report in December. The troublesome aspect of the survey, however, is the revelation that for the first time ever, more high school seniors smoke marijuana on a daily basis than cigarettes.
The MTF survey, which monitors eighth, 10th and 12th graders and is funded by NIDA, has been conducted by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor since 1975. Though the data shows that there’s been a 54.9 percent decrease in daily cigarette smoking among 10th graders, it also reveals a decline in the perception that regular marijuana use is harmful. Among high school seniors, 31.9 percent said smoking marijuana could be harmful. That’s down from 36.1 percent last year.
Teenagers are doing less of almost every other drug with the exception of marijuana.
Highlights From The Monitoring the Future Survey on Teenage Drug Use
- Heroin use among teens is at an all time low, at 0.5 percent among 10th and 12th graders – this is really good news considering the current heroin epidemic that’s sweeping across the country
- Misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers is down, with 4.4 percent of seniors reporting non-medical use. The peak of prescription opioids was in 2003, with 10.5 percent of seniors reporting non-medical use
- Rates of binge drinking, defined as having five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks, are seeing a steady decrease
- Use of inhalants, LSD and MDMA (ecstasy) are down, with 3.6 percent of reporting past year use of MDMA compared to 5 percent last year
- Though cigarette smoking has seen a dramatic decrease among teenagers, rates of other tobacco use, such as hookahs, small cigars and e-cigarettes remain high
The Director of NIDA, Dr. Nora D. Volkow, is encouraged that illicit drug use among teenagers is down, but is concerned with data regarding marijuana. Research has shown that regular marijuana use by teens and people under the age of 25 can damage their still developing brains. The wiring process between neurons can be interrupted and altered by cannabinoids from marijuana.
One study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry reports that using marijuana once a week or more can alter the structure of the teenage brain, particularly in areas dealing with memory and problem solving. Other studies have repeatedly shown that the earlier a person begins using drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a dependence or addiction later in life.
“We cannot be complacent,” Volkow said in an interview with TheAtlantic.com. “The rate of drug use, legal and illegal, are still very high.” In September 2015, NIDA launched the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Scientists from 13 different institutions will follow 10,000 children, tracking their exposure to substances like alcohol, marijuana and nicotine in hopes of mapping the effects of these chemicals on the developing brain.
A naturally curious nature combined with an intense need to “fit in” with their peers has always put teenagers at risk for experimentation with drugs and alcohol. This challenge is unlikely to disappear. However, with greater public awareness about the dangers of addiction as well as the damage that drugs have on the developing brain, parents, teachers, coaches and mentors can provide teenagers with the tools they need to make better decisions.