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Adolescent Drug Use: Do New Numbers Bode Well for 2018?

teen opioid use

At the end of 2017, the latest Monitoring the Future data was released— and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is some good news regarding adolescent drug use. Despite the ongoing opioid crisis affecting our country, despite the alarming increases in opioid overdoses nationwide, they said, opioid abuse among adolescents is at an all-time low.

The Monitoring the Future survey is an annual evaluation of drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders across the nation. Middle and high school students, in both public and private schools, are surveyed about their use of illicit drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco, as well as their overall attitudes towards substance use. Prescription opioid abuse is reported only for 12th graders.

According to this year’s results, about 4 percent of high school seniors reported misusing prescription opioids, or painkillers, in the past year. This is a dramatic decrease from 2004, the peak year of opioid abuse in adolescents, when nearly 1 in 10 teens (9.5 percent) had misused prescription drugs. 2017, officially, is the lowest year on record for adolescent opioid abuse.

The adolescents who were surveyed in 2004 – nearly a decade and a half ago, when teen opioid use was at its peak – are now in their early 30s. Not so coincidentally, this 30-year-old age bracket is now the cohort leading the country’s drug overdose epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently reported alarming increases in fatal, opioid-related overdoses for Americans between the ages of 25 to 44.

We know that the risk of addiction increases when drug use begins in adolescence or earlier. According to expert sources, nearly 70 percent of adolescents who misuse an addictive drug before age 13 will develop a substance use disorder within seven years. So the above makes perfect sense. More adolescents were abusing drugs years ago; now, many are facing the negative consequences of that abuse. The declines in adolescent drug use, specifically opioid misuse, are promising – reflecting the success of education and prevention initiatives around prescription opioid drugs.

Prescription opioids involve medications like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and other brand names that can be found in many home medicine cabinets. These drugs may be prescribed to adolescents for a variety of reasons, including minor surgeries like wisdom teeth removal and athletic injuries. The problem is, painkillers are highly addictive – even the legally prescribed ones. A physical opioid addiction can develop in four weeks, but a psychological dependence can develop in as little as two days. Many cases of opioid addiction in adults start in the adolescent years, so it is great news to hear that less teens are falling into the vicious addiction cycle so early on. In fact, Nora Volkow, director of the NIDA, says this decline in opioid misuse is the “best MTF news this year.”

But what other news did we gather from the latest Monitoring the Future survey? What other trends in adolescent drug use are occurring, and how do those portend for 2018?

Rates of cigarette and alcohol use remained low among the adolescents surveyed, however, other means of adolescent drug use were unfortunately up in 2017.

Adolescent marijuana use, for example, increased significantly in 2017. Nearly one-quarter of teenagers surveyed used marijuana last year. Richard Miech, Principal Investigator of the survey, explains that this increase was, in a way, expected. “Historically,” he says, “marijuana use has gone up as adolescents see less risk of harm in using it. We’ve found that the risk adolescents see in marijuana use has been steadily going down for years to the point that it is now at the lowest level we’ve seen in four decades.”

Teens are seeing less harm in smoking (and now vaping) weed, likely due to the roll-out of marijuana legalization in many U.S. states. However, many forget about the detrimental effects of marijuana on teens: adolescents are in a period of critical brain development, and marijuana use, or any drug use for that matter, can interfere with the process. Marijuana use in teens has been linked to psychotic disorders, lower IQ levels, poor memory and academic performance, and more dangerous addictions. Next time your teen asks if marijuana is bad for you, say yes. Marijuana is not safe for adolescents.

If we take marijuana out of the picture, illicit adolescent drug use did decline in 2017. However, parents should also be wary of inhalant drugs. According to the survey results, inhalant abuse among teens – including sniffing glues, gases, and sprays – significantly increased among 8th grade students in 2017.

Adolescence is a critical window for learning, maturing, and coming into our own. A person’s learning capacity – to absorb knowledge, to develop habits, to foster skills – is never so great as it is during the teenage years. Unfortunately, adolescence is also the most vulnerable period for drug abuse – and due to their inclination towards impulse, teens are most likely to try drugs and alcohol during these early years. More than ever, supportive, positive, and sober environments are critical to our youth’s success.

If your son or daughter is using drugs or alcohol, know that early intervention is the best thing you can do as a parent. It is never too early to seek help. More often than not, adolescents do not seek treatment on their own. They need your help. Turnbridge is a residential, teen drug rehab center located in the heart of New England. We are trained to treat teens battling addiction and drug abuse, and to help them develop the skills needed to live a sober, healthy life. We are here for you!

Call us at 877-581-1793 to learn more about our young men’s and women’s programs.