Opioid, Illicit Drug Use Among Teens Declining

Prescription opioid misuse decreased by 45% over the past 5 years.

Despite rising concerns that the opioid epidemic is affecting all populations, a new survey indicates that substance use among teenagers is decreasing.

The 2016 Monitoring the Future survey results suggest that teenagers’ behaviors and decisions regarding substance use are changing, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who funded the survey. The survey is intended to determine drug use and attitudes among teenagers in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade.

Findings from the survey show a continuation of a previously-discovered trend of declining use of illicit substances, such as marijuana, as well as alcohol and tobacco. The investigators also discovered a decline in the misuse of prescription drugs among these teenagers.

According to the survey, the past year’s illicit drug use was the lowest in the survey’s history for 8th graders. The use of illicit drugs, other than marijuana, also showed a decline from recent years for teenagers in all grades.

The use of marijuana in the past month decreased from 6.5% in 2015 to 5.4% in 2016 among 8th graders, and daily use of the drug also decreased from 1.1% in 2015 to 0.7% in 2016. In contrast, 22.5% of 12th graders reported marijuana use over the past month, with 6% reporting daily use. Investigators said these findings were similar to last year’s figures.

Marijuana use over the past year remained stable in 2016 compared with 2015 in 10th graders. Although marijuana use is not declining significantly among these individuals, it is at the lowest levels seen in more than 20 years, according to the NIH.

“Clearly our public health prevention efforts, as well as policy changes to reduce availability, are working to reduce teen drug use, especially among eighth graders,” said Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of NIDA. “However, when 6% of high school seniors are using marijuana daily, and new synthetics are continually flooding the illegal marketplace, we cannot be complacent. We also need to learn more about how teens interact with each other in this social media era, and how those behaviors affect substance use rates.”

Investigators also discovered that marijuana use among 12th graders was higher in states that legalized medical marijuana, compared with states that did not. In 2016, 38.3% of respondents in 12th graders living in states with medical marijuana laws had used the drug over the past year, while 33.3% of individuals not living in these states reported use in the past year.

Interestingly, the use of marijuana and e-cigarettes among the survey participants was more popular over the past year compared with tobacco cigarettes. Over the past month, only 10.5% of 12th graders used tobacco cigarettes, and 12.4% used e-cigarettes.

This decline in tobacco cigarette use was seen across all groups, showing a long-term decline from peak use nearly 2 decades ago, according to the NIH.

When the survey first measured cigarette use, 10.7% of 12th graders smoked at least half a pack per day, and now only 1.8% of 12th graders report this behavior. These results may suggest that anti-smoking campaigns and legal changes may have led to this decline.

All groups reported extremely low rates of alcohol use, with this survey’s findings being the lowest rates ever reported in the survey. The rate of 12th graders reporting alcohol use decreased from 53.2% in 2001 to 37.3% this year, the NIH reported.

While prescription opioid misuse remains a significant issue among adults, the survey found that use of these drugs among teenagers has significantly decreased. Among 12th graders, the use of prescription opioids decreased 45% compared with the rate from 2011.

Although these findings are encouraging, there should be more initiatives created to further reduce the number of teenagers involved with illicit and legal substance use.

"It is encouraging to see more young people making healthy choices not to use illicit substances,” said National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli. "We must continue to do all we can to support young people through evidence-based prevention efforts as well as treatment for those who may develop substance use disorders. And now that Congress has acted on the President's request to provide $1 billion in new funding for prevention and treatment, we will have significant new resources to do this."