January 23rd, 2015

Two weeks ago, I summarized the 2014 data on teenage drug use from “Monitoring the Future.” This week I will turn to those in their college years with data from the spring of 2013. While the data from middle and high school students is almost entirely good, the trends for drugs in college are mixed.

Positive developments for drugs in college:

  • Alcohol has shown a five-year pattern of declining use, while reports of being drunk have been the same for the past two years after a five-year decline. Alcohol use on college campuses is still very substantial as is binge drinking (5 or more drinks) and extreme binge drinking (10 or more). Age peers who are not attending college report being drunk somewhat less than college students.
  • Synthetic marijuana use has fallen sharply from a high of 7 percent in 2011 to 2 percent in 2013.
  • Several drugs have declined for over a decade and were used by less than 1 percent of students in 2013. These drugs include inhalants, crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, “bath salts,” GHB, and ketamine.

Negative developments for drugs in college:

  • Marijuana use has been increasing gradually for six years and now exceeds tobacco use. Of particular concern is that daily or near-daily use (20 or more uses in the past 30 days) is now at its highest in 30 years. Use was higher in men than women, particularly daily or near-daily use (9 percent vs. 3 percent). In contrast to alcohol, use of marijuana by age peers who were not in college was higher than that of college students, particularly daily use, which was double.
  • Ecstasy use, which had showed a substantial decline between 2002 and 2007 from 9.2 percent annual prevalence to 2.2 percent, has now risen to 5.8 percent in 2012 and was still at 5.3 percent in 2013.

No change for drugs in college:

  • The use of opioid pain pills (Vicodin, OxyContin, and others) peaked in 2006 at 8 percent and declined to 5.4 percent by 2012 with no change in 2013.
  • Nonmedical use of stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, has nearly doubled since the low point in 2008, but there was no further increase between 2012 and 2013. These uses were to prepare for tests or to finish homework rather than for recreational purposes.
  • Hallucinogen use has remained at about 5 percent since 2007, following an earlier period of decline.

With intense debates swirling around us about the best public policies to promote in regard to psychoactive substances, I find data points such as these, even when disturbing, to be grounding.  They provide a basis for reasonable discussion and disagreement.

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