A number of anti-drug organizations delivered words of warning this month upon the federal government’s release of data from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) showing some increases in young people’s use of drugs such as marijuana and prescription medications for nonmedical purposes.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts the NSDUH annually as the main source of substance use prevalence information in 12-and-older population.
While overall use numbers remained flat or increased only slightly in many survey categories, the fact that some surveyed areas showed their first increases since 2002 justifies the need for a strong prevention response at the community level, these leaders said.
“Yes, the rates are lower than they were a decade ago, but who’s to say the rate is not going to continue to increase next year and the year after that?” said Gen. Arthur T. Dean, chairman and CEO of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA). “The simple fact is we need to take this as a warning sign and act now to prevent further increases in drug use among youth.”
The 2009 data showed a current (past-month) illicit drug use rate of 8.7 percent in 2009, up from an even 8 percent rate in 2008. In 2009, that represented an estimated 21.8 million current (past-month) users of illicit drugs.
The 2009 rate of current marijuana use among youths ages 12 to 17, at 7.3 percent, remained lower than the 2002 rate of 8.2 percent, but marijuana use in this age group had declined after 2002 and had held steady at 6.7 percent every year since 2006. In the same group, the rate of nonmedical use of prescription drugs increased slightly from 2008 to 2009, from 2.9 percent to 3.1 percent; the rate had been 4 percent in 2002.
Alcohol use was largely unchanged from the previous year. Among all participants surveyed and among young adults separately, rates of binge drinking and heavy drinking remained relatively stable from 2008 to 2009. The rate of binge drinking (five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once in the past month) was 23.7 percent, while the rate of heavy drinking (binge drinking on at least five of the past 30 days) was 6.8 percent.
A decrease among youths in the perceived risk associated with substance-using behavior, particularly marijuana use, significantly alarmed some anti-drug leaders. The 2009 survey found that the percentage of youths ages 12 to 17 perceiving great risk in smoking marijuana once or twice a week dropped to 49.3 percent in 2009; the percentage had been as high as 55 percent four years earlier.
“All of the signs and studies have been pointing to a softening of anti-drug attitudes among teens, and now, to the confirmation that teen drug use is rising,” Partnership for a Drug-Free America president and CEO Steve Pasierb said in a statement. He added in reference to his impression that youth substance abuse has disappeared from the national agenda, “We’ve become complacent, and the result is a generation less attuned to the devastation that teen addiction can cause families.”
Attention to marijuana
Data concerning marijuana use and attitudes toward marijuana dominated the focus of field comments and news coverage following release of the 2009 survey numbers — perhaps not surprising given current attention surrounding medical marijuana initiatives at the state level and especially the upcoming ballot vote this November on California’s marijuana legalization initiative.
While government officials are tying increases in young people’s marijuana use rates to decreased perceptions of risk, and legalization advocates say instead that the increases demonstrate the failure of marijuana prohibition policies, Join Together director David Rosenbloom warns against over-analyzing what are generally modest increases seen in the latest data.
“The increase in marijuana use by young people noted in this year’s survey is not proof of the failure of current federal laws against marijuana,” said Rosenbloom. “The legal status of marijuana is only one of the factors involved in the number of people who use it. The numbers have gone up and down over the many years it has been illegal.”
The price and availability of the drug relative to other substances also must be considered, said Rosenbloom, who emphasized that the vast majority of youths continue to avoid regular use of marijuana because of the poorer life outcomes associated with regular use.
CADCA’s Dean believes that communities should take a proactive stance in light of the latest numbers. “One of the best ways we can reverse these upward trends is to invest in what we know works — evidence-based strategies,” says Dean. He cited specifically a federal evaluation of the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, showing that communities that have established community-based coalitions under the program have experienced decreases in youth substance use rates.