November 7th, 2016

College Aged Substance Use Patterns

There is good news, and bad, about college-aged Americans and their use of psychoactive substances.  In most respects, the news for 2015 was good, except for cannabis use.

One of the most reliable sources for this information is the “Monitoring the Future” project from the University of Michigan. In an article on this site earlier this year, I summarized its 2015 update on use patterns of middle and high school students; that data is released at the end of each calendar year. The report on college-aged people is released later in the year and is the subject of this article. 

According to the U of Michigan report, college-aged people who used cannabis at all in 2015 increased to 38 percent from 30 percent in 2014.  Daily use by that population also increased, to 4.6 percent, although this was below the 5.9 percent of college-aged Americans who used marijuana daily in 2014.

However, the use of synthetic THC, also known as “Spice” or “K-2,” dropped dramatically to 1.5 percent from the 8.5 percent that was reported when it was first measured in 2011.

Alcohol use has declined but remains the “drug of choice” for college-aged people. Seventy-nine percent reported any use over the past year.  Sixty-seven percent reported drinking in the last thirty days of the survey.  Sixty-two percent said they were drunk at least once during the 12-month period; 38 percent said they were drunk at least once during the last month of the survey.   Binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a sitting, declined slightly (at 40 percent within a two-week period). A reduction was seen in men but not in women. Extreme binge drinking, defined as 10 or more drinks in a row during a two-week period, did not increase but at 11 percent is still an area of understandable concern.

Tobacco use was another mostly positive story.  Cigarette smoking by college-aged Americans has been gradually declining for years and, in 2015, 11 percent, a record low, reported any tobacco use, down from a peak of 31 percent in 1999. Only 4 percent reported daily use, down from a peak of 19 percent. By contrast, 23 percent of non-college youth of the same age were still reporting any use and 9 percent said they smoked one half a pack per day, versus college rates of 1 percent.  Some of the reduction by college students may reflect a shift to electronic vaporizers, including e-cigarettes, which have only recently been measured. Prior month use is now reported by 14 percent of men and 6 percent of women.

The use of all other substances was consistently down. Regarding opioids, prescription pain pills declined to 3 percent from their 2006 peak of 9 percent. Heroin use has always been minimal in this population and is now down to 0.1 percent. The use of prescription stimulants may have peaked, falling from a high of 11 percent in 2012 to 9.7 percent in 2015. The use of MDMA, another stimulant is also known as “ecstasy” and “Molly,” has been declining since 2012 and use in 2015 stood at 4 percent. Finally, the non-prescribed use of tranquilizers remained steady at 4 percent but is down from higher levels in the early 2000s.

One constant about the use of psychoactive substances is change.  Changes in current use patterns often are a reliable predictor of later trends in problem use. In two months, the 2016 numbers for middle and high schools students will be available, and you can look for a summary on this site.

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