Good News from Monitoring the Future 2014

December 16, 2014

At the end of a year that has seen further tragic deaths from addiction and new designer drugs that put young people at risk, today’s results from the 2014 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of drug use among adolescents provide a dose of welcome optimism. No major drug use indicators increased significantly between last year and this year; use of alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit and prescription drugs either held at the same level or, in many cases, declined among American teens.

Particularly heartening was the fact that students’ marijuana use has not increased in the past two years: This year, 21.2 percent of seniors, 16.6 percent of 10th graders, and 6.5 percent of 8th graders used marijuana in the past month—high percentages, but not significantly different from 2013. Cigarette and alcohol use (including binge drinking) continued their steady downward trend that we’ve seen for several years now. Abuse of prescription opioids also declined since 2013 and is down by a third to a half over the last 5 years (depending on the opioid and the grade).

We have also seen diminished abuse of inhalants by the youngest teens, who historically are most likely to abuse these readily available substances, as well as diminished abuse of over-the-counter drugs like cough syrups. And although synthetic cannabinoids like “K2” and “Spice” (also known as “synthetic marijuana”) have only been tracked in the survey for the past two years for all three grades, use of these very dangerous and unpredictable drugs is also down from last year.

Although there are no doubt many possible contributing factors to these trends, I like to think that prevention messages are making an impact. Teens are getting the message from various sources that drugs are not good for their developing brains, and there are much better, healthier, and more enjoyable ways to spend their time.

An exception to the good news may be teens’ perception of the risks associated with marijuana. Although use has not increased since 2012, the numbers of teens who believe marijuana is not harmful continued the steady decline we have seen for a decade; this perception of safety could be linked to the drug’s greater visibility and public debates over its legality and its possible uses as medicine.

The survey also showed that edibles are popular among teen marijuana users, especially in states that have legalized medical marijuana. Forty percent of seniors who had used marijuana in the past year in medical marijuana states reported having consumed it in an edible form, versus 26 percent in non-medical marijuana states. With edible marijuana products there is a great danger (to both adults and kids) of ingesting high doses of THC without intending to, making it very important that these products be properly regulated and labeled.

Scientists and policymakers may endlessly debate the degree of long-term harm marijuana poses, but while there is much we still do not know about the drug’s effects, all available evidence points to significant interference in brain development when marijuana is initiated early and used heavily. In 2014, 5.8 percent of 12th graders reported daily or near-daily use of marijuana, which may impact this segment of youth for the rest of their lives. (With the collaboration of other NIH institutes, NIDA is planning a major longitudinal study that will examine the effects of teen marijuana and other drug use more closely over the next decade.)

A brand-new area of concern reflected in the MTF survey is the surprisingly high use of e-cigarettes, which were included for the first time in this year’s survey (thus trend data are not available). The survey showed 17.1 percent of seniors, 16.2 percent of 10th graders, and 8.7 percent of 8th graders report past-month use of these devices, whose health effects are at this point virtually unknown.

Although e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco and thus produce no tar, there may be other harmful chemicals in the vapor they produce, and products that deliver nicotine (which depend on the fluid used) can be addictive. Thus it will be very important in coming years to monitor e-cigarette use by young people and learn more about their health effects.

While overall the MTF data this year are encouraging, we of course cannot relax our efforts in educating teens about the dangers of the drugs they encounter now and will continue to encounter as they grow older. The message should be clear and unequivocal: For teens and young adults, whose brains are still not finished maturing and thus can be readily altered in their development by any substance exposure, there are simply no safe drugs.

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