1 in 9 high school seniors using synthetic marijuana

Teenage drinking and cigarette smoking is at a historic low, but marijuana use and prescription drug abuse continue at high rates, according to a new report looking at trends among teens.

And there’s a new substance raising concerns.

For the first time the study looked at the use of synthetic marijuana, also known as Spice or K2, by 12th graders. More than 11% admitted using it over the last year, information Gil Kerlikoeske, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), calls shocking.

“One in nine 12th graders in America have used synthetic marijuana in the last year. Spice and K2 now rank as the second most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors, second only to marijuana,” Kerlikowske said. “Make no mistake. These drugs are dangerous and can cause serious harm. Poison control center data across America have shown as substantial rise in the number of calls from victims suffering serious consequences from these synthetic drugs.”

ONDCP says poison control centers have fielded nearly 6,000 calls so far this year – already double last year’s number.

According to Kerlikowske, up until a few months ago synthetic marijuana was being sold legally as an alternative to marijuana in convenience stores across the country. That’s when the Drug Enforcement Administration banned the sale of the chemicals used to make it.

Now, he’s calling on parents to talk to their kids about the serious consequences of marijuana, K2 and Spice use.

“We must be clear with our young people,” says Kerlikowske. “Smoked marijuana is not an FDA approved medicine and the National Institute of Health has long documented the harms of marijuana use. Science shows it is addictive. Research shows it impairs driving. Studies show it can degrade academic performance.”

Kerlikowske says ONDCP is working on a federal response to Spice/K2 that includes working with public health agencies to share data and coordinate a response. They are also working with Congress to get new laws passed that will ban these drugs.

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey has been tracking students from secondary school to young adults for nearly four decades, measuring their drug, alcohol and cigarette use. Each year the study chronicles the behaviors and attitudes of nearly 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders.

Researchers say the drop in alcohol and cigarette use has occurred gradually for a number of years.

“That cigarette use has continued to decline to historically low rates is welcome news given our concerns that decline may have slowed or stalled in recent years,” said NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse who funded the study. “Tobacco and alcohol cause more disability and death in this country than any other drug , so we are heartened that efforts made by the public health community to educate teens and prevent drug abuse seem to be having an impact.”

Fourteen years ago about 75% of 12th-graders admitted drinking alcohol. In 2011, 63.5% say they did. This year almost 27% of eighth-graders surveyed used alcohol compared to approximately 47% in 1994. Over the last 5 years, binge drinking – defined as having five or more drinks in a row over a two-week period – fell among all three grades.

Teen smoking fell in all three grades as well. A little more than 10% of 12th graders say they smoke daily – down significantly from 24.6% in 1997; while just 2.4% of 8th graders reported smoking every day.

“This is very good news for the health and longevity of these young people,” states Lloyd Johnston, research scientist at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of the study. “Even a reduction of only one percentage point can translate into thousands of premature deaths being prevented.”

Teen smoking peaked in 1996-1997. Since then, the levels have dropped significantly – 71% for 8th graders, 61% in 10th graders and 49% in seniors. In fact, the number of students who have tried smoking at all fell dramatically.

Marijuana use, on the other hand, continues to rise at a steady pace, researchers found. More than 36% of seniors reported using the drug over the past year; almost 7% say they use it daily. Researchers say the rise in use is tied to the perception that the drug is not harmful.

The study also tracked prescription drug trends. Use of the painkiller Vicodin dropped among sophomores, and remained unchanged – but at levels considered high – among seniors.

Researchers say the fact that OxyContin use has remained steady for all three grades over the last five years is cause for concern. Another cause for alarm – amphetamine use is up among high school seniors. They saw no change in the use of Adderall and Ritalin, both ADHD medications, over the last year. But they did see a considerable drop in the number of 8th graders abusing over-the-counter cough medication.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health. Volkow says the institute is launching an updated prescription drug section on their teen website in an effort to educate teenagers about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

“Teens can go to our PEERx pages to find interactive videos and other tools that help them make healthy decisions and understand the risks of abusing prescription drugs.”

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