NIH Survey: Alcohol, marijuana and vaping top students' 2017 drug use
Experts behind a 2017 national drug use survey warn that a slight uptick in the rates of marijuana and vaporizer use among senior high school students in the United States are major causes for concern, and could be an indicator for future drug use.
This year's Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse since its start in 1975 and conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, found that more than a third of senior students surveyed have used marijuana and nearly one in three have used a vaporizer, or "vape" device, in the past year.
Though the increase in marijuana use among 12th graders between the2016 (35.6 percent) and 2017 (37.1 percent) surveys may not appear significant, it's coupled with a decrease in high school seniors' perceptions of the risk of using cannabis, a combination that should raise eyebrows, says Dr. Richard Miech, principal investigator of Monitoring the Future.
"It is possible that this could be the start of an upswing in marijuana use, given that 12th graders today see less risk in marijuana use than any cohorts we've seen in recent decades," Miech says.
Only 14.1 percent of 12th graders see "great risk" in smoking marijuana from time to time, the lowest percentage since 1979, when the number was at 13.5 percent, the study reports.
"Typically, as this percentage declines the use of marijuana increases," Miech continues. "These low levels of perceived risk may set the stage for substantial, future increases in youth marijuana use."
The survey's results also revealed that 27.8 percent of high school seniors reported "vaping" in the past year. Vaporizers are devices that heat a particular substance, like flavorings, nicotine or cannabis, into a mist that is puffed or inhaled.
One in 10 high school seniors reportedly used vaporizers for marijuana substances, and close to a third – 32.8 percent – said they believed nicotine was in the mist the last time they used a vaping device.
"There's the concern that all of the big advances that we've done in the prevention of smoking among teenagers may be lost by the introduction of these electronic devices that are used to take nicotine," Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says. "Those kids who think that they are just vaping flavor, they may be vaping a flavor with nicotine and you will never know it."
"That's how the addiction process is triggered and initiated, so that is definitely an area of concern," she continues. If using vape devices for flavors is normalized among teens, Volkow says, then "it's much easier to do that transition of using them and combining them with nicotine," which is highly addictive.
Because the study of vaporizers is relatively new, and its monitoring by this survey among teens only began in 2015, researchers don't yet know whether these tools could lead to future tobacco use or consequences on long-term health. But, Miech points out, 10 recent studies looking into the matter found that kids who vape were more likely to experiment with smoking cigarettes in the future.
And accessibility matters: high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws are more likely to have vaped or consumed marijuana than those in states without such laws, according to the report.
Aside from marijuana and inhalants, illicit drug use remains the lowest it's been in the last three decades of the survey, with 13.3 percent of high school seniors, 9.4 percent of 10th graders and 5.8 percent of eighth graders reporting past year use, the survey found.
Alcohol remains the chief drug of choice for the observed students, with more than half of high school seniors reporting its use within a year of taking the survey. The study also confirmed the trend in recent years of teenage students switching from cigarettes to marijuana, with less than 10 percent of high school seniors reportedly having smoked cigarettes in the past month, compared to 22.9 percent who say they have smoked marijuana.
It further showed a decline in the number of students who say they have misused pain medication – which the survey refers to as "narcotics other than heroin" – in the past year to 4.2 percent, less than half of the highest usage rate of 9.5 percent in 2004. The rate of high school seniors who say they have misused the prescription opioid Oxycontin also fell to an historic low of 2.7 percent.
The Monitor the Future study included responses from 43,703 students from 360 public and private schools across the country. The annual inquiry asks students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades their drug use behaviors throughout their lives, within the past year and in the past month. Students also answer questions about daily cigarette and marijuana use, as well as their perceptions of the risks involved in the use of various legal and illicit drugs.
On Monday, members of federal agencies, including those from Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice, met to discuss how to most efficiently implement some of the 56 recommendations issued by the White House's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in its final report, published last month.
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