American Teens Say No to All Drugs Except Weed

Getty Images / Jeff Vinnick

The youth of America are responsible for some pretty dumb things, like getting arrested while playing Pokemon Go and inventing the Mannequin Challenge, but at least they’re getting smarter about drugs. The latest results from the long-running Monitoring the Future study show that U.S. high school students are saying no to pretty much every illicit drug except for marijuana.

This year’s study, now in its forty-second year, reports that the rates of reported teenage cigarette smoking, illicit drug use, and even alcohol use were significantly lower in 2016 compared to 2015, but marijuana use among teenagers is on the rise. As the researchers from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research pointed out in a release, this trend reflects a more generalized movement away from illicit drugs that has been observed among secondary school students since the late 1990s. The findings suggest that the national prevention campaigns against drug use and binge drinking among teenagers actually work — and that the relaxation of national attitudes toward marijuana have also taken effect.

The survey, which assessed 45,000 students from private and public secondary schools in grade 8, 10, and 12, unearthed some especially encouraging statistics about narcotic use among teenagers. It’s no secret that addiction to prescription opioids has huge swaths of the U.S. adult population in its often-fatal grip; according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, some 2 million adults had a substance use disorder involving prescription painkillers in 2015, and 591,000 adults had disorders related to heroin. American teenagers appear to be wiser than their elders: the Monitoring the Future survey revealed that in 2016, only 4.8 percent of high school seniors have reported using prescription narcotics, which is a huge decrease from the 9.5 percent of seniors that reported using them in 2004. Similarly, reported heroin use has dropped dramatically from 1.5 percent among 12th-graders in 2000 to 0.3 percent in 2016.

The researchers observed similar decreases in the rates of teen use with other illicit drugs, such as ecstasy, bath salts, synthetic marijuana, and prescription amphetamines (such as ADHD drugs). The only drug that did see a jump in use was marijuana, with nearly 23 percent — that’s one in four — high school seniors reporting having used it. This is a continuation of an ongoing trend; among high school seniors in particular, the prevalence of marijuana use is about 36 percent, where it’s held fairly steady since 2011.

This trend is perhaps not surprising, given the spread of legalization and widespread references to weed in pop culture. Increasing awareness about marijuana’s potential health benefits by well-known figures, such as NFL players advocating its use for treating CTE and NBA coach Steve Kerr publicly discussing his use of medical marijuana, is likely to have influenced the trend as well. While Dr. Nora D. Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the study, warned STAT News that increased accessibility to marijuana could lead to higher “vulnerability for drug consumption” among teenagers, the “gateway drug” argument she invoked is very controversial, with many scientists arguing that there’s no correlation between the effects of marijuana and the abuse of other illicit drugs. It very well could be that the kids are just getting smarter about drugs — which gives us one less thing to worry about in 2016.

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