Proponents of a new approach to drug policy need look no further than the results of the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, which reports increased youth use of marijuana and a flattening out of many other types of illicit drug use after a prolonged decline.Smoking rates among teens also have fallen to the lowest levels in history, although tobacco-control experts worry that use of smokeless-tobacco products could be rising, according to the study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.The past two years have seen a small but significant increase in the proportion of teens reporting that they used illicit drugs, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, who have conducted the MTF study since 1975. In 2009, 32.8 percent of high-school seniors reported past-year marijuana use, as did 26.7 percent of 10th-graders and 11.8 percent of 8th-graders. Researchers said marijuana use has crept back up to the levels last reported five years ago after a steady decline in reported use dating back to the mid-1990s.
“So far, we have not seen any dramatic rise in marijuana use, but the upward trending of the past two or three years stands in stark contrast to the steady decline that preceded it for nearly a decade,” said lead researcher Lloyd Johnston. “Not only is use rising, but a key belief about the degree of risk associated with marijuana use has been in decline among young people even longer, and the degree to which teens disapprove of use of the drug has recently begun to decline. Changes in these beliefs and attitudes are often very influential in driving changes in use.”
“The small increase in marijuana use and the decline in viewing marijuana use as risky are troubling and may suggest that confusion surrounding discussions of medical marijuana may be encouraging recreational or self-medicating use by teens,” said David Rosenbloom, Ph.D., president and CEO of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA*) at Columbia University.
Marijuana was almost entirely responsible for the uptick in overall drug-use rates among teens, as reported use of illicit drugs other than marijuana continued to decline in 2009. Cocaine use, for example, is at its lowest reported levels since the early 1990s, and use of drugs like ecstasy, inhalants and LSD also have either fallen or flattened out at relatively low levels.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the reports of softening youth attitudes about the perceived risk of marijuana use a “warning sign.”
“These latest data confirm that we must redouble our efforts to implement a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to preventing and treating drug use,” said Kerlikowske, who currently is drafting the Obama administration’s first National Drug Control Strategy, widely expected to recommend shifting more resources to demand-reduction efforts rather than programs to reduce the supply of drugs.
Bruce Mirken, director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) stated in a blog post on the MTF results that youth marijuana use has declined in states that have passed medical-marijuana laws. He noted that the MTF study shows that more high-school seniors now smoke marijuana than cigarettes — findings he said “do not bode well for current policies.”
Progress on Youth Smoking Rates Hailed
Smoking rates among 8th-, 10th-, and 12-graders continued to decline in 2009, according to the MTF findings. Just 11.2 percent of high-school seniors now tell researchers they smoke cigarettes, less than half the rate in 1997. The rate of decline has slowed considerably in recent years, however.
“The much slower progress in recent years is a clear warning to elected officials at all levels that they must resist complacency and redouble efforts to implement proven measures — rather than cutting tobacco prevention programs, as 34 states did this year,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Use of smokeless tobacco rose slightly among 10th-graders, MTF found, with 6.5 percent reporting use of products that the tobacco industry has been increasingly marketing as an alternative to smoking. “Public health experts had predicted this increase in response to the tobacco industry’s wide-ranging and aggressively marketed smokeless products now widely available,” according to a statement from the American Legacy Foundation.
Teen Alcohol Use Rates Bottoming Out?
As with marijuana, far fewer high-school students report drinking alcohol today than did in the 1970s and 1980s, but the long-term trend toward declining use may be slowing to a halt. Past-month use and binge-drinking rates each ticked downward in 2009 among 8th-graders, the MTF survey found, but 10th- and 12th-graders drank and binged at about the same rate last year as they had in 2007.
Still, CASA’s Rosenbloom termed the long-term trends on drinking “very positive” and used the data to rebut recent calls for lowering the legal drinking age as a means to combat binge drinking among college students.
“The 21-year-old drinking law has been an important public-health success, even with limited enforcement,” said Rosenbloom. “This year’s numbers reinforce the importance of keeping the law.”
MTF researchers found that 60 percent of students reported that they could easily obtain alcohol — including a significant drop between 2008 and 2009 and reflecting the long-term decline from a high of 75 percent in 1996. “It would appear that state and local efforts to crack down on sales to underage buyers, perhaps along with greater parental vigilance, have had an effect,” Johnston said.
Little Change Seen in Prescription Drug Misuse
Prescription drug misuse has garnered much media attention and is the focus of antidrug media campaigns from the federal government and groups like the Partnership for a Drug Free America. Antidrug officials said that non-medical use of prescription drugs remains problematic, with almost one in 10 high-school seniors reporting misuse of the prescription painkiller Vicodin, for example, and prescription drugs accounting for 8 of the 13 drugs most frequently abused by 12th-graders.
After several years of rising rates, however, this year’s MTF report finds that misuse of prescription drugs has generally leveled off. The same was true of over-the-counter medications and cold medicines, researchers reported.
The survey also identified a significant decline in reported teen use of methamphetamine: just 1.2 percent of high-school students reported using the drug, the lowest rate since 1999. Federal officials hailed the news, which underscores the belief that meth use is fading as a national threat even as it persists in certain regional pockets.
While awareness of the danger associated with meth use may be high, however, the MTF report found that the same was not true of ecstasy, inhalants and LSD: Johnson noted that perceived risk of these drugs has fallen in recent years even though there has been no corresponding rise in usage rates.
“Given the glamorous name and reputation of [ecstasy], I could easily imagine it making a comeback as younger children entering their teens become increasingly unaware of its risks,” he said, noting that the shift in attitudes toward these drugs and substances could leave young teens more open to experimentation.
The MTF included questions about use of the psychoactive herb salvia divinorum — which has received substantial media coverage in recent years — for the first time in 2009. Researchers found that 5.7 percent of high-school seniors reported using salvia in the past year; the herb grows wild in some regions of the U.S. and remains legal in many states.