WASHINGTON—A national survey of teenagers shows that marijuana use has leveled off in 2012. It had been increasing in the past four years.
Marijuana is by far the most commonly used drug by teens and the prevalence is disturbingly high. In the survey, 36 percent of high school seniors said they used marijuana during the past 12 months, and one in 15 (6.5 percent) said they smoke marijuana daily or near daily, up from 5.0 percent six years ago.
Equally disturbing is the trend that teens’ perception of the risk of harmfulness in using marijuana is in decline and has never been lower.
The 2012 “Monitoring the Future” survey of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders across the country was designed and conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, under a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The results were announced at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 19. by the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Lloyd Johnson. Johnson has been leading the Monitoring the Future survey since it started 37 years ago.
The percentages for the use of marijuana in 2012 for 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders were 11.4, 28.0, and 36.4 percent, respectively. There wasn’t much change compared to 2011.
Nearly a quarter of high school seniors, said they smoked marijuana in the month prior to the survey; the number was 17 and 6.5 percent for 10th- and 8th-graders, respectively.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, spoke at the press conference, and said this high number for regular monthly users is very alarming. She is well known for connecting marijuana use and brain dysfunction in adolescents.
The Monitoring the Future survey has been conducted annually since 1975 to measure drug, alcohol, and cigarette use of 12th-graders, adding 8th- and 10th-grade levels in 1991. The surveys are considered reliable as they use large national sample sizes. The number of participants in the 2012 survey was 45,449 students from 395 public and private schools.
Perception of Harmfulness
The majority of eighth-graders did not agree that smoking marijuana occasionally was putting someone at “great risk.” Only 41.7 percent said it did. The percentage of 10th-graders and 12th-graders who gave the same answer of high risk for occasional users was 26.8 and 20.6, respectively. These perceptions are an indication that marijuana use will increase.
Less than half of 12th-graders (44.1 percent) say that regular use of marijuana holds great risk—the lowest perception of risk since 1983, said Volkow.
Those who used marijuana heavily before age 18 showed mental decline even after they quit taking the drug.
—Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA
Johnson said that the “sharp decline” of perceived risk that teenagers associate with marijuana use “suggests further increases in use in the future.”
Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana, and two states, Colorado and Washington passed propositions in the November election legalizing its recreational use. Volkow said that this trend of states to legalize the medical use of marijuana influences teen perceptions that marijuana is safe to use. She expects the use will increase now.
Volkow says that persistent cannabis users easily get distracted, misplace things, forget to keep appointments or return calls, and, in general, manifest memory and attention problems.
“Those who used marijuana heavily before age 18 showed mental decline even after they quit taking the drug. This finding is consistent with the notion that drug use during adolescence—when the brain is still rewiring, pruning, and organizing itself—can have negative and long-lasting effects on the brain,” writes Volkow on the NIDA website.
Nicotine and Alcohol: Teen Use Down
There is some good news as the study found declines in most of other drugs that teenagers use. Cigarette smoking continued its downward trend in 2012. The survey found the percent of 8th-graders and 12th-graders daily using cigarettes at 1.9 and 9.3, respectively, which is way down from 7.4 and 20.6 percent, respectively, in year 2000.
Smokeless tobacco has been fairly steady for the last decade. In 2012, 7.9 percent of seniors report using it in the last 30 days. But this use is strongly associated with gender, with male seniors use at 13.5 percent versus female seniors at 1.6 percent.
Alcohol consumption on a daily basis had dropped to 0.3 percent for eighth graders and 2.5 percent for high school seniors. In 2000, it was 0.8 and 2.9 percent. Binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks at one time, is up significantly for high school seniors. Nearly one-quarter of seniors reported binge drinking in the two weeks before taking the survey.
After marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco, the next most important drugs abused are the prescription and over-the-counter medications. The latter include, in order of importance, Adderall, Vicodin, cold medicines, tranquilizers, OxyContin, and Ritalin. The annual prevalence rate of these ranged from 7.6 percent (Adderall) to 2.6 percent (Ritalin). At the press conference, Volkow said that Adderall, Vicodin and OxyContin were “highly addictive.”
Aside from alcohol and tobacco, synthetic marijuana, also known as K-2 or Spice, is the second most used drug among 10th- and 12th-graders, and third most for 8th-graders. The annual prevalence of synthetic marijuana among 12th-graders was 11.3 percent, which compares to 36.4 percent for marijuana. Volkow said the use of synthetic cannabinoids at 11.3 percent, which came into the market relatively recently, is already “an extremely large number, if you think about it.” The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has banned many of the ingredients commonly used to make it, but manufacturers find ways around the legal restrictions with chemical substitutes.
The illicit drugs showed no significant changes in 2012 high school seniors’ annual prevalence, according to the survey. “Only Ecstasy, Salvia, and the use of heroin without a needle, showed statistically significant declines this year,” says the University of Michigan press release.
Compared to the use of marijuana and prescription, over-the-counter drugs, the use of powder cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, and heroin was much less.
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