Confronting Drug Use Among Our Youth
Over the past 20 years, teenagers have engaged in illicit drug use at high rates. This is largely due to the prevalence of marijuana use. Although marijuana use among teenagers declined beginning in the late 1990s, it has been increasing since the mid-2000s. According to the 2012 Monitoring the Future National Drug Use Survey, 6.5 percent of 8th graders, 17.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.9 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month. This represents an increase from 14.2 percent of 10th graders and 18.8 percent of 12th graders in 2007. Daily use has also increased with 6.5 percent of 12th graders using marijuana daily. This figure is up from 5.1 percent in 2007.5
These findings are consistent with the results from the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey which reported that 40.7% of 9th to 12th graders had used marijuana at least once, and 8.6% first used marijuana before the age of 13. Of the respondents, 23.4% indicated current marijuana use (having using marijuana within 30 days of the survey). Comparing the 2013 results to the 1991 survey, rates of marijuana use had increased over this period3.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that rising marijuana use rates reflect changing perceptions and attitudes about the risks associated with marijuana use. As perceptions of risk go down, actual use goes up, and youths are showing decreases in perceptions that marijuana is dangerous. The perceptions that marijuana is a safe drug may be in response to public issues involving marijuana including medical marijuana and marijuana legalization initiatives.5
“The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that rising marijuana use rates reflect changing perceptions and attitudes about the risks associated with marijuana use.”
Perceived risks associated with hard drug use appear to have remained stable. While rates of hard drug use are lower than rates of marijuana use, the use of hard drugs by youths remains problematic. The 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey results indicated that 5.5% of respondents have used some form of cocaine, 8.9% have used some type of inhalant, 2.2% have used some form of heroin, and 3.2% have used methamphetamine. Comparing the results to the 1991 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, hard drug use remained stable over time.3
Illicit use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines has also become a significant part of the youth drug problem. In 2012, 14.8 percent of high-school seniors reported using a prescription drug non-medically in the past year. Stimulants are the most commonly abused prescription drugs with 7.6% of respondents indicating non-medical Adderall use and 2.6% of respondents indicating non-medical Ritalin use. Vicodin exhibited a similar rate of use at 7.5%. Non-medical use of cough medicine was reported by 5.6% of respondents, and tranquilizer use was reported by 5.3% of respondents. Sedative use was reported by 4.5% of respondents, and non-medical Oxycontin use was reported by 4.3% of respondents.8
“In 2012, 14.8 percent of high-school seniors reported using a prescription drug non-medically in the past year.”
Several important reductions have been noticed in the past five years. The use of inhalants, ecstasy (MDMA), and cocaine have all seen significant decreases. Inhalant use is at its lowest level with inhalant use dropping from 8.3% of 8th graders and 6.6% of 10th graders in 2007 to 6.2% and 4.1% in 2012, respectively. Use of cocaine by 12th graders dropped from 5.2% to 2.7% from 2007 to 2012. Ecstasy (MDMA) use decreased from 5.3% in 2011 to 3.8% in 2012. Among 10th and 8th graders, ecstasy use dropped from 4.5% to 3.0% and from 1.7 to 1.1%, respectively.8
Effects of Drug Use
Drug abuse represents one of the nation's most costly, pervasive, and challenging social problems. The use, particularly the early use of marijuana and illicit drugs contributes to serious personal and social problems including school failure, crime, family violence, and abuse.9 Early drug use has been related to problems later in life including antisocial and deviant behavior, relationship instability, mental health problems, and social integration issues.2 Further, early drug use has been related to impulsivity and engaging in high-risk behavior both as adolescents and later in adulthood.10 Finally, drug abuse carries the risk of addiction and overdose.
“Drug abuse represents one of the nation's most costly, pervasive, and challenging social problems.”
The repeated use of drugs may lead to addiction, and addiction typically begins from casual use. Addiction occurs when an individual experiences a compulsive need to use drugs to function normally. Addicts are typically unable to control their use and may continue using despite the harm that drug use poses. Because the behavior is compulsive, it is difficult for individuals to recognize it themselves. Further, the unconscious nature of drug addiction makes it difficult to treat. For individuals that have successfully stopped using drugs after addiction, relapse is a common occurrence.6 Currently, levels of drug addiction in the United States have reached record highs.5
National Level Prevention
The National Prevention Council outlines several actions that the federal government advocates to assist in the reduction of drug use. First, the federal government recommends fostering the development of a community-based prevention system that involves state and local government and partners such as schools, health and social service systems, law enforcement, faith communities, local businesses, and neighborhood organizations. Second, the federal government recommends enhance linkages between drug prevention, substance abuse, mental health, and juvenile criminal justice agencies to develop and disseminate effective models of prevention and care coordination. Third, they recommend the implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs and education for health care professionals on how to effectively use these programs. Finally, the federal government recommends education for consumers on the risks associated with prescription drugs including prescription drug safety and appropriate medication use.6
The Role of School
Youth spend a considerable amount of time in school, and it is clear that school staff including administrators, teachers, school-based law enforcement officers, and staff members play an important role in the health and safety of youth. One problem that schools face concerns the sale and transfer of drugs on school campuses. According to the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 22.1% of respondents reported having bought, sold, or been given drugs by someone on their school campus. This represents a decrease from 1993.3 Drug use on school property has also increased since 1991 with 5.9% reporting having used marijuana on school property. According to the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 22.1% of respondents reported having bought, sold, or been given drugs by someone on their school campus. This represents a decrease from 19933.
“According to the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 22.1% reported having bought, sold, or been given drugs by someone on their school campus.”
Schools play a greater role than simply eliminating drug sales and transfers. There are several actions that school staff members can take to reduce drug use among youth in general. First, schools should clearly communicate drug-free policies, and these policies should be consistently enforced.4 This sets a well-defined expectation regarding drugs and drug use in the school environment. Additionally, these steps serve to strengthen attitudes against drug use. Second, schools should develop and adopt prevention curriculums that delineate the consequences of drug use.4 Third, schools should provide opportunities that allow students to work on projects promoting drug-free policies, assist users to quit, and prevent non-users from starting.4 Constant evaluation of these actions helps to ensure proper implementation which leads to success in decreasing student drug use. In addition to these actions schools should work with families, youth, and other community members in addressing drug use prevention.
The Role of Families
There are several important steps that families can take to aid schools in the prevention of drug use among youths. The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention provides a series of objectives that families should implement. Importantly, the first objective centers around parental involvement in youths' lives. This should serve to foster good communication between children and parents. Second, parents should seek to establish and enforce clear rules. Enforcement should be consistent and should include appropriate consequences. Third, parents should strive to be positive role models in their children's lives. Being a positive role model includes helping to shape youths' norms, attitudes, and values concerning drug use. Finally, parents should teach their children to choose their friends wisely and monitor their children's activities closely.7 Because peer drug use is consistently related to youth drug use, monitoring who youths spend their time with and what activities they engage in is of paramount importance.1
The Role of Youth
As mentioned above, peer drug use is consistently related to youth drug use. In fact, this finding is so common that it is commonly held that the most consistent predictor of youth drug use is the proportion of peers that engage in drug use.1 There are several ways in which peers may influence youths to use drugs. First, youths that use drugs model the behavior for other youths. This directly affects youths' norms, attitudes, and beliefs about drug use. Further, peer drug use may provide opportunities and support for drug use that otherwise may not been present.1
Although, peer influence has a dramatic impact on youth drug use, the same mechanism may serve to prevent drug use. Research shows that peer influence has as large of an effect preventing youth drug use as influencing youths into using drugs.4 This social influence paradigm underscores many drug prevention programs that rely on the idea that an import aspect of preventing youth drug use involves buffering youths from the peer pressure to use drugs.1 This implies that youths that have a social network consisting of friends that abstain from drug use benefits from the social influence against drug use. Just as schools should provide opportunities for youths to be involved in anti-drug use programs and parents should monitor children's friends, youths themselves must consider the consequences of social involvement with youths who choose to use drugs.
1Baumann, K. E. & Ennett, S. T. (2006). On the importance of peer influence for adolescent drug use: Commonly neglected considerations. Addiction, 91, 185-198.
2Bentler, P. M. (1998). Consequences of adolescent drug use: Impact on the lives of young adults. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
3Centers for Disease Control (2013). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2013. U.S Department of Health and Human Services.
4Kann, L., Brener, N., Wechsler, H. (2007). Overview and summary: School health policies and programs study 2006. Journal of School Health, 77(8), 385-397.
5National Institute on Drug Abuse (2012). Monitoring the Future: National survey results on drug use, 1975-2010.
6National Prevention Council (2010). Preventing Drug Abuse and Excessive Alcohol Use.
7Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Keeping Youth Drug Free. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, DHHS Publication No. (SMA)-3772. Rockville, MD, printed 2002, revised 2004.
8Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (2012). Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
9Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The National Cross-Site Evaluation of High-risk Youth Programs. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, DHHS Publication No. (SMA)00-3375. Rockville, MD, 2002.
10Wit, H. (2009). Impulsivity as a determinant and consequence of drug use: A review of underlying processes. Addiction Biology, 14, 22-31.