Teen Overall Drug Use Is Down, But Marijuana Use Is Up

A national survey indicates that teens think vaping marijuana is safe.

Posted Dec 23, 2017

Matus Petrila/freeimages
Source: Matus Petrila/freeimages

Every year the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) surveys 8th, 10th, and 12th graders across the country about their use of illicit and prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, and their attitudes toward drug and alcohol use.* This year, in many ways the results are encouraging, but there are areas of concern.

For most substances, teen use is at their lowest levels ever. Prescription drug abuse among teens peaked in 2004 when nearly 1 in 10 teens (9.5%) reported misusing them. Use began to decline in 2008, and today teen use is at record low levels—roughly half what it was in 2004. Cigarette smoking has also hit a record low.

NIDA data
Source: NIDA data

“Vaping,” however, has become popular among teens, with more than a quarter of 12th graders (27.8%) saying they had vaped in the past year. Slightly more than half say they are vaping “just flavoring,” but roughly a third say they are vaping nicotine, and 11.1% say they are vaping “marijuana” or “hash oil.” About 1 in 20 twelfth-graders report having vaped marijuana in the past month, and more than 1 in 10 said they vaped nicotine in the past month.

Nicotine use in adolescence is particularly concerning. Vaping nicotine significantly increases the likelihood of later cigarette smoking, and according to Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, adolescents exposed to nicotine are at greater risk of doing other drugs. This it isn’t just because kids who are known to be smokers are more likely to be invited to do drugs. Drugs like nicotine “prime” the dopamine system to find other drugs more physiologically rewarding.

Marijuana is of additional concern. A popular misconception among teens today is that marijuana is safe. With new laws legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use, both teen disapproval of marijuana use and the perception of harm associated with the drug continue to decrease. Significantly fewer teens now disapprove of regular marijuana use, and less than a third of 12th graders believe that regular marijuana use poses a great risk. In comparison, 20 years ago, when the amount of THC in marijuana was only about a third of what it is today, twice as many 12th graders understood the risk. In states in which medical marijuana is legal, 12th graders are more likely to vape and use marijuana edibles than 12th graders in states in which the drug is illegal. (In states without legalized marijuana, 8.3% of high school seniors report consuming edibles compared to 16.7% of seniors in states in which medical marijuana is legal.)***

Marijuana use impairs short-term memory, distorts perception, and impairs judgment—and teens are not famous for outstanding judgment even without marijuana. Used in adolescence, the drug impacts developing brains in areas like problem solving, memory, and critical thinking, and daily use can alter brain structures related to working memory and cognitive development, even lowering IQ—an effect that can last into adulthood even after quitting. The earlier the drug is introduced, the worse the impact on the brain.

Not only does marijuana affect maturing brain systems, contrary to popular myth, it can be addictive, and regular use can increase the likelihood of other addictions. Hans Breiter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University who researches the effects of marijuana calls it “the ideal compound to screw up everything for a kid.” ♦

Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.


* National Institute on Drug Abuse (December 14, 2017) Vaping popular among teens; opioid misuse at historic lows NIH’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey shows both vaping and marijuana are more popular than traditional cigarettes or pain reliever misuse