As the opioid epidemic sweeps away scores of American adults, abuse of those drugs has hit a historic low among teens, who are increasingly drawn to marijuana and vaping.
Almost a quarter of young people in the US smoke cannabis, according to the latest report by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which has been collecting data on drug and alcohol use among young Americans since the 1970s.
This year’s report, released this morning, found that use of nearly all types of drugs had fallen among the 43,703 teens surveyed, including opioids and ‘synthetic marijuana’, or ‘K2’, which is killing adults across the country.
Instead, teens are increasingly turning to marijuana: cannabis consumption was up among children as young as 12, particularly in states which have legalized the drug either recreationally or medicinally.
They are also shunning tobacco products in favor of vaping, even though many admit they are unsure what substance they are consuming through their e-cigarettes.
Researchers suggest that the new numbers may indicate that recent national efforts to discourage teens from using opioids might be working, but critics caution that we need to turn our attention to teen marijuana use, branding it a ‘gateway drug’.
Marijuana use is up among teens, with one third reporting some use, and nearly six percent using it daily, according to new data from the National Institute for for Drug Abuse. Cigarette smoking continues to decline, but vaping – including cannabis vaping – is on the rise
Though opioid use, abuse and overdose are most common in older people, teen addiction is particularly worrisome to public health officials like those at the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA)
So data showing that only around two percent of students between the eighth and twelfth grades are using popular prescription opioids is encouraging, and continues a trend downward since the 2003 peak.
Oxytocin use fell to 2.7 percent, a significant drop from the drug’s heyday among students in 2005, when 5.5 percent were using it recreationally.
Still, opioids have not historically been the drug of choice for young students, and nearly one third of students now report that they vape.
Vaping was increasingly common as students got older, according to the study, and by the time they were seniors in high school, and nearly one third said they had vaped in the last year.
Teen marijuana use – in vapes or otherwise – crept up only marginally from last year’s numbers, but the report says that researchers will monitor emerging marijuana trends closely.
The NIDA survey’s data suggest that legalization may give teens easier access to marijuana products.
Rates of marijuana edible use in states where it is medically legal were nearly 17 percent – double those in states where it is illegal.
Dr Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana says that the industry is ‘big tobacco all over again.’
He says that edibles, candies and sweet e-liquids are ‘kid-friendly’ items, which, he says they can get their hands onto more easily in legalized states.
Teens are now equally or more likely to use marijuana on a daily basis as they are to smoke cigarettes that frequently.
‘More teens think that using marijuana, especially today’s high potency marijuana, is safe and acceptable,’ Dr Sabet says.
Marijuana use has increased among teens over the last decade, with nearly one quarter now reporting some use over the course of the year, according to NIDA statistics
Daily use of marijuana is still fairly uncommon among teens, as the Monitoring the Future infographic shows, but the majority of older teens see it as safe and acceptable
Some research has suggested that flavored e-liquids and e-cigarettes have made marijuana both more appealing and more accessible to younger teens, perhaps acting as a gateway to other drugs and tobacco use.
Dr Sabet sees this as a ‘double-edged sword’: ‘Most people who use marijuana will not use heroin, but over 90 percent of those who use heroin or coke started with marijuana,’ he says.
‘Nobody started their drug-using career with a needle in their arm.’
Yet, the legalization of marijuana has been linked to seen drops in opioid use and overdoses in those states.
Dr Sabet is primarily concerned that because today’s products are ‘way stronger than what their parents smoked,’ teens developing brains could be damaged.
E-liquid potency varies widely, but some use highly-concentrated doses of cannnabis oil, raising concerns from the medical community that the youngest and most inexperienced users may be getting the highest doses of the substance.
However, even in high concentrations, not all cannabis oils contain THC, the ingredient in cannabis responsible for the ‘high’ sensation.
The majority of high school seniors – 51.8 percent – thought that what they were inhaling in vapes was ‘just flavoring,’ while 32.8 percent said it was nicotine.
But previous research has indicated that teens are frequently unsure what substance they’re actually vaping, and that even reading the label may not provide them with accurate information.
‘We are especially concerned because the survey shows that some of the teens using these devices are first-time nicotine users,’ said Dr Nora D. Volkow, director of NIDA.
‘Recent research suggests that some of them could move on to regular cigarette smoking, so it is critical that we intervene with evidence-based efforts to prevent youth from using these products,’ she added.
Just over 10 percent of high school seniors reported that they vaped with marijuana, yet daily use of the substance continues to become increasingly common in the same group.
Meanwhile, fewer teens are smoking cigarettes – down to just 4.2 percent – and binge drinking rate seem to be finally leveling out, according to the study.
Heroin, cocaine, steroids and LCD use remains low among students, though there has been a ‘significant’ uptick in LSD among high school seniors, about three percent of whom reported trying it.