Marijuana Use Spikes Among Teens but Cigarette Smoking and Drinking Decline

By Stephen Spotswood

WASHINGTON — A new survey of teen drug use shows that, while alcohol use continues its long-term decline, marijuana use has surprisingly spiked, suggesting a changing attitude among teens about the dangers of its regular use. The survey, officials said, can act as a road map for prevention efforts.

At the same time, government leaders are focusing on the recovery side of the equation and attempting to redefine mental disorders and substance-use disorders in hopes of creating a more modern, applicable groundwork for recovery efforts.

Use of synthetic marijuana,shown in the photo, is increasing among high-schoolers in the United States. – Courtesy of Drug Enforcement Administration

According to National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow, MD, the results of the 2011 Monitoring the Future Survey is a good news-bad news scenario.

The good news is that trends of substance-use decline that NIDA has seen in past years are continuing. Cigarette smoking among teens is declining — which Volkow says she believes will have considerable positive downstream health consequences.

“Good news also comes on the alcohol indicators, which also show they are at the low end since 1996,” Volkow said at a press conference announcing the survey’s findings.

Daily alcohol drinking is 46% lower than in 1996, while binge drinking, which Volkow called “also very problematic,” is down 30%.

“These exemplify the concept that prevention interventions work and can have a big impact,” she said.

The bad news comes in the area of marijuana use. During the past five years, marijuana use has increased, especially among 10th- and 12th-graders.

“We have the highest rates on everyday marijuana smoking among 12th-graders since 1981,” Volkow said. “6.6% of 12th-graders are smoking marijuana daily, regularly. And considering the adverse effects of marijuana on memory and learning, that of course can predict where the consequences are going in terms of educational achievement.”

One new factor found in the survey results is the emergence of synthetic marijuana — something which came to light in Europe in 2008 but only recently seen in the United States. Synthetic marijuana is cannabis mixed with other plants, which users believe give them more of an herbal high than a chemical one.

“Well, they are not herbal high; they’re chemical highs,” Volkow said. “They are cannabinoids. And the survey, for the first time, evaluated it, and to my surprise, it’s extremely high. Among 12th-graders, past-year use of these synthetic cannabinoids is 11.3%.”

According to HHS’ Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, MD, federal and state governments are working quickly to criminalize synthetic forms of marijuana.

“A few months ago, the Drug Enforcement Agency used its emergency-scheduling authority to ban the sale of the chemicals used to manufacture [two forms of synthetic marijuana called] K2 and Spice,” Koh said. “We have convened several working groups at the federal level, working with our colleagues on Capitol Hill to also — we could not be more proud that the House of Representatives, I believe last week — pass legislation to ban this. It will now be in front of the Senate. And I think there is strong support to get these things off the market. And many states — I believe 38 states — have taken action already, because the states can move quickly on these kinds of issues.”

Part of this increase in marijuana use is a change in perception, Volkow noted. Fewer children view smoking marijuana regularly as having any harmful effects. Experience conducting the survey has taught researchers that perception of risk predicts whether children will eventually use the drug.

“So, whether we do an intervention to change that or we can predict that, use of marijuana is going to increase,” Volkow said.

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