December 26th, 2016

The just-released 2016 report by the Monitoring the Future project on alcohol and drug use by young people bore welcome news. We are excited to see decreased substance use by youth. Decreasing use has been the rule for several years, but the use of some substances had always increased. For the first time, annual declines were across the board for all substances and age groups, with a few minor exceptions. This was particularly the case for 8th and 10th graders. Historic lows were again reached for some substances.

This 42-year-old project is the gold standard of surveys about substance use.  Its data has the added advantage of timely release. Three items from the report stood out for me:

  1. Cannabis use decreased significantly among 8th graders and stabilized for 10th graders and 12th graders. The liberalization of cannabis laws in many states had sparked fear about possible increased use by young people.
  2. The use of electronic cigarettes or “vaping” declined for the first time along with a continued decrease in the use of tobacco. The use of electronic cigarettes in this age group continues to bypass conventional cigarettes. But electronic products are controversial, with some experts questioning whether their decreased toxicity might be offset because their use could lead to increased rather than decreased tobacco use. 
  3. The use of prescription opioids decreased, accompanied by information that 40 percent of the misuse involved medication that was obtained legitimately from prescribers. This adds fuel to the argument that physicians and dentists should be more cautious in prescribing these substances, as recommended by a recent report of the Centers for Disease Control.

Continued declines were seen in the use of alcohol, amphetamines including MDMA or “ecstasy,” synthetic cannabis (“K2,” “spice”), bath salts, cocaine, sedatives, and inhalants.

This good news, however, is relative, given the fact that the use of any psychoactive substances by young people can have a more damaging effect than on adults because the nervous systems of youth are not yet fully developed. For example, binge drinking (5 or more drinks at a sitting, 4 for women) is reported by 3 percent, 10 percent, and 16 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders respectively. Daily cannabis use is reported by 1 in 17 12th graders (6 percent).

The task ahead is challenging because the actual number of young people still using drugs tells a less optimistic story and requires continued attention. Hopefully, current strategies of discouraging use by focusing on the evidence will be maintained, as opposed to previous scare tactics and emotionally driven drug-demonizing.

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