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New Survey Results: Drug Abuse in Teens is Declining

drug abuse treatment for teens

Rewind back to 2015, when the nation witnessed a drop in drug abuse among teens. After years of seeing teen drug use climb an upwards trend, 2015 brought a quiet sense of stability as well as a sense of hope. Less high school students reported using drugs like ecstasy, Molly, heroin, synthetic marijuana, and amphetamines than earlier years. Alcohol and smoking reached low points in history. A generational shift had started to take place.

Fast forward to the present: The year 2016 has just come to an end, and new survey results detailing the current state of drug abuse in teens are officially in. Will 2016 offer a positive outlook for America’s teenage population this year? Can we safely say that drug abuse in teens is subsiding?

Illicit Drug Abuse in Teens

According to the 2016 Monitoring the Future survey, the answer is yes. Teen drug abuse, according to the survey results, is at an all-time low. More specifically, past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana is at its lowest level in the history of the survey for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. This means that illicit drug use among adolescents is the lowest it’s been in more than 25 years.

In 2016, past-year illicit drug use was reported by 5.4 percent of 8th graders, 9.8 percent of 10th graders, and 14.3 percent of 12th graders. This is down from peak rates of 12.6 percent for 8th graders (1995), and 18.4 percent for 10th graders (1996), and 21.6 percent for 12th graders (2001). 

Since the survey’s inception, teen usage rates are at their lowest levels for addictive substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, inhalants, and sedatives. Misuse of other illicit drugs, including synthetic cannabinoids, prescription opioids, hallucinogens, and over-the-counter cough and cold medications, have been on the decline for the past five years straight.

Despite the raging opiate epidemic flooding the nation, numbers suggest that teenagers are becoming less and less involved with the misuse of prescription drugs. According to the Monitoring the Future survey, prescription opioid abuse in teens has also experienced a promising decline: past-year use of prescription painkillers among 12th graders dropped 45 percent from the year 2001. On decade ago, about 10 percent of high school seniors reported past-year Vicodin abuse. Today, that number is at 2.6 percent.

Marijuana Abuse in Teens

Marijuana use, overall, remained stable among teenagers in 2016. For 8th and 10th graders, however, there has been a progressive decline in daily marijuana use in the past five years, from 1.3 to 0.7 percent among 8th graders and from 3.6 to 2.5 percent among high school sophomores.


Among high school seniors, marijuana use remains relatively unchanged from last year. Today, approximately 1 in 16 high school seniors report daily marijuana use. The lack of upheave in these numbers indicates that the changing marijuana laws have not yet made a strong impact on the high school population. However, the risk perception of regular marijuana use suggests otherwise.

From 8th to 12th graders, the perceived risk of regular marijuana use continues to decline each year, with only 31.1 percent of 12th graders today seeing regular marijuana use as harmful. This is down from 58.3 percent of seniors in the year 2000. Not only this, but 78 percent of adolescents have friends who use marijuana regularly, despite the harmful effects of marijuana use on teens.

Last year, there was a higher rate of marijuana use among high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws than in states without them. As an example, over 38 percent of 12th graders in states with medical marijuana laws reported past year marijuana use, compared to 33 percent in non-medical marijuana states.

Alcohol Abuse in Teens

Alcohol abuse among teens has also been on the decline. According to the 2016 survey results, the rate of teens who have “been drunk” in the past year is now at its lowest in survey history.

About 37 percent of 12th graders reported having been drunk in the past year; 20.5 percent of 10th graders also reported having been drunk, down from a peak of 41.6 percent in 2000. Among 8th graders, past-year alcohol use was about 5.7 percent, down from 19.8 percent in 1996.

Binge drinking among adolescents has also significantly declined in recent decades. Among 8th graders specifically, only 3.4 percent report having had five or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks. Binge drinking among 12th graders is also down to 15.5 percent, down from 31.5 percent in 1998. 

Still, adolescents report that alcohol is still in arm’s reach. Over 70 percent of 10th graders today believe it is easy to get alcohol.

Treating & Preventing Drug Abuse in Teens

Despite promising downward trends in teen drug use, there is still great opportunity to reduce drug abuse among America’s youth. As Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse states, we cannot be complacent. We must not be bystanders; we must be proactive in protecting our teens:

“When 6 percent of high school seniors are using marijuana daily, and new synthetics are continually flooding the illegal marketplace, we cannot be complacent. We need to learn more about how teens interact with each other in this social media era, and how those behaviors affect substance use rates.”   

Dr. Lloyd Johnston, a leading researcher of the MTF survey, supports her statement, “The declining use of many drugs by youth is certainly encouraging and important— But we need to remember that future cohorts of young people entering adolescence also will need to know why using drugs is not a smart choice.”

Evidence-based treatment methods and prevention efforts, as well as early interventions for teen drug abuse, will be crucial in supporting young people battling problems and pressures with drugs. For those who may have developed a substance use disorder, professional young adult drug treatment and resources need to be readily accessible in order to make a change. For those who are just entering their peak years of adolescence – the most crucial years for brain development – we must educate them with accurate drug facts and the truth about addiction.

The teenage years are the years in which growing teens are most vulnerable to addiction. Drug abuse in teens, as a result, inevitably paves the way for clinical substance use disorders, lasting addictive behaviors, and lifelong mental, physical, and emotional consequences. While the Monitoring the Future survey offers us a positive forecast for 2017, we must not stop prevention efforts on any front.

If you or someone you love is battling a substance use problem at a young age, it is crucial to seek help. Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more about drug abuse in teens, or to start a drug treatment plan for your child today.