February 19th, 2018

Adolescent Marijuana Use: Arrival of Expected Bad News

“Marijuana use among adolescents edged upward in 2017, the first significant increase in seven years.” This was the finding of the authoritative Monitoring the Future project, which has been tracking adolescent drug use trends for over 50 years. The increase occurred at all of the grade levels measured – 8th, 10th, and 12th. The project, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and located at the University of Michigan, represents what I believe to be a gold standard of drug use surveys.

Although unwelcome, this news is not surprising. The best predictor of increased use – the perception of harm in using the substance – had been declining for years and is now at the lowest point in four decades. Furthermore, the relaxation of state laws restricting the use of medical cannabis and recreational marijuana should logically lead to increased availability – another one of the predictors.

Electronic vaping, which has overtaken conventional tobacco smoking in adolescents as a delivery system for nicotine, is now becoming an increasingly widespread method of use for marijuana as well. Monitoring the Future has begun tracking the use of vaping in general to see if it is being applied to other substances.

The other piece of bad news is that the use of inhalants by 8th graders increased significantly for the first time in years. This, again, could have been predicted by the decline over the last years in the perception of harm from using this substance. The last bit of “not good news” is that the steady decline over the past several years in the use of alcohol did not continue.

As for good news, the use of tobacco cigarettes and smokeless tobacco continued to decline as did the use of prescription opioids, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. Heroin use remains at historic lows. Other substances that have been declining in use and continued to do so were Ritalin, bath salts, and synthetic marijuana, known as “K2” and “Spice.” There has been some indication of increase in the use of cocaine and amphetamines in the adult population, but fortunately, this has not occurred among adolescents.

The use of many other substances held steady. These included MDMA (“ecstasy”), LSD and other hallucinogens,  tranquilizers, steroids and over-the-counter cough medications containing dextromethorphan or “DXM.”

I expect that this change in the marijuana use patterns will be used by those who are arguing against the liberalization of marijuana laws. We will have to wait until next year to see if this increase becomes a trend. Before that, we will get the results of the Monitoring the Future report on use by college-age youth, which will be available mid-year.

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