One of the most comprehensive studies on the state of drug use among youth in the United States is the Monitoring the Future National Survey. Sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Health, this survey has been distributed on an annual basis since 1975 and provides insight into the prevailing culture of drug use among youth as well as its comparative trends over time. The MTF conducts school surveys for 12th grade, 10th grade, and 8th-grade students, and also sends follow up surveys to graduates. These findings can not only tell us how the nation’s youth consume substances, but also what policies and regulations are the most beneficial moving forward.
Marijuana and Inhalants Increase
Data from the latest survey has shown that the prevalence of marijuana has increased by 1.3% across all three grades between 2016-2017, likely owing to increasing legislation for medical and recreational use of marijuana along with a growing public tolerance and favorable view of the drug. The index use of all illicit substances increased by a slight percentage point, but inhalants, which include any drug that can be consumed through inhaling, rose by a staggering 2% overall. This is significant because it is the first rise in inhalant usage since 2013.
Dangers of Marijuana
Despite a growing spate of research linking marijuana with neutral to positive side effects, there is still not a definitive conclusion on whether its harmful for the developing brain. We know that marijuana shows promise in treating pain, muscle spasms, seizure disorders, and nausea, but not on whether it is safe for adolescents. All that we do know is that that marijuana usage, like every other illicit substance, is linked to less favorable life outcomes including poor academic performance, higher dropout rates, increased dependence on welfare, and unemployment.
One study out of Duke examined the effects of long-term usage on IQ and found that the most persistent users of the drug experienced a drop of roughly six IQ points over a period of 20 years. Researchers believe that the drug could create lasting damage on the developing frontal cortex of the brain, which is the region critical for planning, judgment, personality, and decision making.
The Dangers of Inhalants
Inhalants comprise a wide assortment of drugs and intoxicants, but they typically are obtained through aerosol canisters and other air tanks. Inhalants include:
- Volatile Solvents: These solvents are chemicals that turn to vapor at room temperature and include glue, lighter fluid, paint thinner, felt tip markers, and dry-cleaning fluids.
- Aerosols: Aerosols are a common commercial product that includes spray deodorants, insect repellent, hairspray, and cooking oil.
- Gases: Include nitrous oxide, and are typically obtained through dental supply stores, whipped cream canisters, lighters, and refrigeration canisters.
Inhalants are especially dangerous because they typically contain an assortment of chemicals that were not intended for consumption and are seriously poisonous. Most inhalants have other uses, but because of the intoxicating chemicals contained within, they have the potential to be abused. People can become addicted to inhalants because they produce an immediate, euphoric high that makes the user feel very intoxicated. They are also easy to obtain because there are so many household products available that rely on specific chemicals to function. Their availability also makes them particularly dangerous for youth, who may not be able to access other substances and may use these extremely harmful ones instead.
Synthetic Marijuana, Bath Salts, Vicodin All Decrease
Synthetic marijuana use in the past year declined by an overall average of 0.5%, and annual prevalence has decreased significantly (more than half) since it first began being measured in 2013. Other drugs that showed a decline across grades were salvia, bath salts, Vicodin, and OxyContin. Ritalin too, a prominent amphetamine used to treat ADHD has shown steady declines in use since 2001.
Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic Marijuana is an especially dangerous substance for youth because it is specifically targeted at this demographic. Synthetic marijuana is so named because most derivations of it active the CB1 receptor in the brain. The substances that go into synthetic marijuana are continually evolving and being updated to get around drug laws in the U.S. What this means is that every time one chemical combination is outlawed, a slight alteration is made so that it’s different, forcing lawmakers to go through the process of making the new combination illegal.
Synthetic marijuana is cheap and produces an intense high, but there is very little known about what ingredients are used because they are continually changing. What we do know is that synthetic marijuana has been known to produce increased heart rate, chest pain, anxiety, vomiting, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, and paranoia. Synthetic marijuana can become addicting because it is easy to obtain and produces an immediate euphoric high. However, synthetic drugs potential for disrupting the natural development of the adolescent brain makes it doubly risky for youth consumption.
Dangers of Bath Salts
Bath salts, like synthetic marijuana, are a relatively new class of drug that is highly dangerous, addictive, and easy to obtain. This breed of drugs is dangerous because of the string of chemicals involved in making them. MDPV, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, is highly addictive and one of the primary substances used in bath salts. The list of side effects that come with bath salts include:
- Increased blood pressure
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Breakdown of muscle tissue
- Brain swelling
Dangers of Vicodin
Vicodin is a common opioid that contains a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone. What makes Vicodin so dangerous is that it's easy to find and easy to get hooked on. As a common pain medication, Vicodin is found in many medicine cabinets. According to the Monitor the Future survey, 2.9% of 12th grades in the U.S. have abused a prescription painkiller such as Vicodin in their lifetime. As an opioid, Vicodin carries the risk of death resulting from an overdose, as well as perilous withdrawal symptoms after prolonged usage.
Prescription Drugs Decrease, Still at High Levels
The use of prescription psychotherapeutic drugs outside of medicinal purposes has achieved a steady decline since 2009. These types of drugs, typically administered in clinical settings, include sedatives, amphetamines, and antidepressants. Misuse of these prescription drugs has dropped from a high of 17% in 2005 to 11% in 2017. This number likely remains high due to a perception surrounding these drugs that their medicinal usage prohibits them from being abused. Given the epidemic of these types of drugs use among adults, it’s good to see that the levels of usage among youth have decreased steadily. We know that roughly half of those who have misused prescription painkillers in the last year obtained the drug from a friend or relative for free, and 22% said they received them from a doctor.
Dangers of Prescription Drugs
The NIDA (The National Institute on Drug Abuse) estimates that more than 52 million Americans over the age of twelve have abused a prescription medication in their lifetime. PBS estimates the number of annual prescription medication abusers to be roughly 7.2% of the United States population. This makes prescription drugs the fourth most abused substance in the country after alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Abusing prescription medication could also open the door to abusing harder street drugs that come in cheaper quantities, such as heroin. According to the CDC, every year roughly.
- 1 million Americans will abuse prescription stimulants (Amphetamines such as Adderall)
- 1 million Americans will abuse prescription painkillers (Opioids such as Vicodin and Morphine)
- 2 million Americans abuse prescription tranquilizers (Barbiturates and Benzodiazepines)
Tobacco Use Continues to Decline
Cigarette smoking has continued its long decline and is now at the lowest levels in the history of the survey. Peak usage and prevalence occurred in the mid-1990’s and since then has fallen over 80%. The fact is, fewer and fewer young people now smoke cigarettes, and overall positive perception of smoking and tobacco approval has significantly declined. In 2017, disapproval of smoking one or more packs a day stood at 89%, 87%, and 87% in grades 8, 10, and 12 respectively. In addition to broader public awareness of the adverse side effects of smoking, price increases have also likely played a role in the continued decline of the tobacco industry in the United States. Smokeless tobacco, as well as snus, have both steadily declined since the 2000’s.
Dangers of Tobacco Use in Teens
Although there are many different forms of tobacco available for consumption, each one carries a significant amount of harm to the developing body and brain. All tobacco products contain the addictive stimulant nicotine, along with many other toxic chemicals that can severely alter your brain chemistry. Cigarettes are known to provide a mixture of over 7000 harmful chemicals, over 70 of which are directly linked to cancer. Smoke from cigarette inhalation also harms nearly every organ in the body. Smokeless tobacco also has high levels of toxicity and has been linked to higher risk for mouth and throat cancer.
Alternatives such as Hookah and E-cigarettes are touted as safer methods of tobacco consumption, but the research tells us otherwise. Hookah smoke is still smoke, even if it passes through the water. The charcoal used to heat Hookah tobacco produces high levels of carbon monoxide, metals, and cancer-causing chemicals, as well as several other toxic chemicals linked to oral, bladder, and lung cancers. The amount of smoke you inhale during hookah is also roughly 180 times greater than what you would smoke out of the average cigarette. There is less available research on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes because they are a relatively recent invention. A recent poll in the United States shows that the public is somewhat split down the middle on whether they think e-cigarettes are more or less harmful than cigarettes. We do know that e-cigarettes reduce the consumption of toxic chemicals associated with cigarettes, but they also lead to many young people getting hooked on nicotine. Clinical trials have shown mixed results on whether e-cigs successfully help people kick their nicotine habits, with some participants smoking even more. Flavored e-cigs may also contain the toxic chemical compound diacetyl, which is associated with a disease of the lungs called bronchiolitis obliterans.
Vaping and Hookah on the Rise
Vaping is the inhalation of vapor using devices such as e-cigarettes, Juuls, e-pens, and vapes. Vaping has seen a continual rise in usage until last year, where thirty-day prevalence of vaping fell to 6%, 11%, and 13% in grades 8, 10, and 12. Despite this decline, vaping levels remain substantially higher than the use of any other tobacco product. The percentage of students who associate vaping with great risk increased slightly as well. Hookah, the famous water method of smoking tobacco, has been steadily increasing among youth in the past ten years; however, annual prevalence decreased to 10% in 2017 from 20% in 2016.
Alcohol Still The Most Common Drug Used by Teens
Alcohol continues to remain the most widely used drug among today’s youth. Roughly six out of every ten 12th grade students have consumed alcohol at least once, and 25% have done so before 8th grade. 45% of 12th graders have reported being drunk at least once in their lives. Underage drinking is a severe public health crisis because the undeveloped brain is particularly susceptible to the adverse side effects of alcohol use. Research has shown that animals given alcohol during the developmental stages of the brain’s lifespan exhibit lasting impairment and mental acuity issues well into advanced age. We also know that the developing brain is prone to making rash decisions and engaging in risky behavior. To reduce the future need to attend alcohol rehab, it’s important to avoid ingesting alcohol at a young age. Adding alcohol into the young body increases the likelihood of severe injury or impairment, whether it be to the brain, liver, or rest of the body.
The results of the Monitoring the Future study show that our country’s youth are doing comparatively better than we were more than 20 years ago when it comes to consuming illicit substances. Using these results, we can hopefully draw some correlative conclusions about programs that reduce risk, prevent underage drinking and drug use, and increase awareness and access to these programs. At Landmark Recovery, we view substance dependence as a crippling disease that requires highly specialized treatment depending on the person and their circumstances. Our drug and alcohol recovery center provides wholesome, well-rounded treatment to encompass and address all aspects of addiction.