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Marijuana Use Rises Among Teens While Alcohol Use Hits Historic Lows

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ANN ARBOR (WWJ) - A new University of Michigan survey suggests more teens are smoking pot while less of them are drinking.

The findings are part of this year’s “Monitoring the Future” survey, in which 47,000 eighth, tenth and twelfth grade students from 400 public and private secondary schools participated.

Marijuana

The survey found that marijuana use among teens rose in 2011 for the fourth straight year — a sharp contrast to the considerable decline that had occurred in the preceding decade. Daily marijuana use is now at a 30-year peak level among high school seniors.

Marijuana use continued to rise among tenth and twelfth graders this year for all prevalence periods (lifetime, past year, past 30-days, and daily use in the past 30-days). Not one of these changes was large enough to be statistically significant, but they all continue the pattern of a gradual rise.

For the three grades combined, the annual prevalence of marijuana use rose in 2011 from 24.5 percent to 25.0 percent, a non-significant one-year increase. But the increase since 2007, from 21.4 percent to 25 percent, is highly statistically significant.

Of perhaps greater importance is the rise in daily or near daily marijuana use, defined as use on 20 or more occasions in the prior 30 days. The rates of current daily marijuana use rose significantly in all three grades last year, and they rose slightly higher in all three grades again this year.

But here again, the increases since 2007 are highly significant at every grade level. Current daily prevalence levels in 2011 are 1.3 percent, 3.6 percent and 6.6 percent in grades 8, 10, and 12.

Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study, said in other words, one in every fifteen high school seniors today is smoking pot on a daily or near daily basis — adding that it’s the highest rate recorded over the past 30 years.

One possible explanation for the resurgence in marijuana use is that in recent years fewer teens report seeing much danger associated with its use, even with regular use.

“Perceived risk,” as the investigators call it –which the study has shown is often a harbinger of changes to come in the use of a drug — has been falling rather sharply for marijuana over the past five years or so; it continued to decline in all three grades this year.

Teens’ disapproval of marijuana use also has fallen over the past three or four years, suggesting a lowering of peer norms against use.

Alcohol

In general there has been a long-term decline in the use of alcohol by teens going back to the 1980s. The early- to mid-1990s saw a pause in this decline as their alcohol use rose for several years along with the use of cigarettes and many of the illicit drugs.

However, a sustained further decline resumed in the latter half of the 1990s, similar to changes in use of cigarettes and a number of illegal drugs.

This gradual decline in alcohol use continued into 2011, when all grades showed a further drop in all measures of alcohol use — lifetime, annual, 30-day, daily, and 5+ drinks on one or more occasions during the prior two weeks.

All of these statistics are at their historic lows over the life of the study. For example, over the past 20 years, from 1991 to 2011, the proportion of eighth graders reporting any use of alcohol in the prior 30 days has fallen by about half (from 25 percent to 13 percent), among tenth graders by more than one-third (from 43 percent to 27 percent), and among twelfth graders by about one-fourth (from 54 percent to 40 percent).

The dangers perceived to be associated with episodic heavy drinking grew in the 1980s, as did students’ personal disapproval of such drinking. Both of these measures also rose in the 2000s, but more slowly.

Another contributing factor likely has been lowered availability, particularly for the younger teens. The proportion of eighth and tenth graders who say they could get alcohol “fairly easily” or “very easily” had been declining since 1996 and continued to drop in all three grades in 2011.

Various other factors of likely importance include the advent of zero tolerance laws for drivers under age 21, higher beer taxes, and restrictions on alcohol promotion to youth.

The proportion of students reporting having five or more drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks prior to the survey also fell in all three grades in 2011.

Consumption of all categories of alcoholic beverages monitored — beer, wine, wine coolers, flavored alcoholic beverages, and hard liquor — has been in decline, with hard liquor showing the least decline.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks (such as Red Bull, Monster, and Reload) are sold legally and advertised to boost energy. They contain stimulants, usually caffeine, and sometimes other stimulants, as well as sugar.

In 2011 in answer to the question, “About how many [energy drinks] do you drink per day on average,” the proportions indicating any recent use were 35 percent of eighth graders and 29 percent of both tenth and twelfth graders. Use of one or more drinks per day was 18 percent, 11 percent and 10 percent for eighth, tenth and twelfth grades.

These rates are down some from 2010 in all three grades, so it appears that use is no longer growing.

Synthetic Marijuana

“Synthetic marijuana,” which until earlier this year was legally sold and goes by such names as “K2” and “spice,” was added to the study’s coverage in 2011. Results show that one in every nine high school seniors (11.4 percent) reported using that drug in the prior 12 months.

Sometimes sold online, in head shops, convenience stores, or gasoline stations, synthetic marijuana is meant to mimic the effects of marijuana (cannabis), and it often contains synthetic cannabinoids that did not appear on the DEA’s list of scheduled substances.

In February of 2011, however, the DEA used its temporary emergency powers to declare a number of the chemicals used in such products to be Schedule I drugs—unsafe, highly abused substances with no legitimate medical use—for at least a year.

In addition, at least 18 states have banned synthetic marijuana. In 2011, 11.4 percent of high school seniors nationwide indicated using it in the prior 12 months; but they completed their questionnaires just shortly after the drugs were placed on the schedule of proscribed substances.

Other Illicit Drugs

The proportion of young people using any illicit drug has been rising gradually over the past four years, due largely to increased use of marijuana—the most widely used of all the illicit drugs.

In 2011, 50 percent of high school seniors reported having tried an illicit drug at some time, 40 percent used one or more drugs in the past 12 months, and 25 percent used one or more drugs in the prior 30 days.

The figures are lower for younger teens, though still disturbingly high. Among tenth graders, 38 percent reported having tried an illicit drug, 31 percent used in the past 12 months, and 19 percent in the prior 30 days. Corresponding values for 8th graders are 20 percent, 15 percent and 8.5 percent.

The proportion of students reporting using any illicit drug other than marijuana has been following a gradual decline for some years, but has remained fairly stable over the most recent three years, with 2011 levels being similar to the 2008 levels.

The annual prevalence rates for using any illicit drug other than marijuana in the prior 12 months are six percent, 11 percent and 18 percent in grades 8, 10, and 12; the corresponding lifetime prevalence rates are 10 percent, 16 percent and 25 percent.

Drugs showing some evidence of declines in use this year include: inhalants, cocaine powder, crack cocaine, the narcotic drug Vicodin, the stimulant drug Adderall, sedatives, tranquilizers,and over-the-counter cough and cold medicines used to get high.

Quite a number of drugs held fairly steady this year. These include use of any illicit drug other than marijuana, inhalants, LSD, hallucinogens other than LSD, salvia, heroin used with and without a needle, narcotics other than heroin, OxyContin specifically, amphetamines, Ritalin specifically, Rohypnol, GHB, Ketamine, methamphetamine, crystal methamphetamine, Provigil, and steroids.

“Monitoring the Future” has been funded under a series of competing, investigator-initiated research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health. For full report details, visit monitoringthefuture.org.

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