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Some Good News About Teen Substance Use

January 02, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

Findings from the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study released in mid-December document that the use of alcohol and a number of illicit drugs has declined among teens in the U.S. Alcohol use in 2014 is at its lowest point since the study began in 1975.

Supported by funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future (www.monitoringthefuture.org) is an ongoing study (now in its 40th year) of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American high school students, college students, and young adults. Approximately 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th grade students are surveyed each year - 12th graders since 1975, and 8th and 10th graders since 1991. In addition, annual follow-up questionnaires are mailed to a sample of each graduating class for a number of years after their initial participation.

The following are excerpts from the Monitoring the Future December 2014 press release:

Underage Drinking

Alcohol use by the nation's teens continued its long-term decline in 2014. All three grades showed a decline in the proportion of students reporting any alcohol use in the 12 months prior to the survey; the three grades combined dropped from 43 percent to 41 percent, a statistically significant change and a large drop from the peak rate of 61 percent in 1997.

Of perhaps greater importance, the proportion of teens who report binge drinking—consuming five or more drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks preceding the survey—fell significantly again this year to 12 percent for the three grades combined. However, while this is an important improvement, roughly one in five (19 percent) 12th graders report binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks.

Peer disapproval of binge drinking has been rising since 2000 among teens. A decline in the availability of alcohol may be another contributing factor to the drop in teen drinking.


After five years of increases, marijuana use in the past year by students in all three grades declined slightly, from 26 percent in 2013 to 24 percent in 2014. Students in the two lower grades reported that marijuana is less available than it once was.

Synthetic Marijuana (K-2, “Spice")

Sold over the counter in many states, synthetic marijuana has chemical components of marijuana sprayed onto shredded plant material that is then smoked; it can be very potent and unpredictable in its effects. The proportion of 12th graders reporting use of synthetic marijuana in the prior 12 months has fallen by nearly half. It was 11 percent when first included in the survey in 2011 and was down to 6 percent in 2014. Efforts at the federal and state levels to close down the sale of these substances may be having an effect.

Prescription (Rx) Pill Abuse

Among high school seniors, there is a statistically significant decline in any prescription drug misuse (including narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers and amphetamines) between 2013 and 2014, from 16 percent to 14 percent now saying they used one or more Rx drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Narcotic drugs other than heroin—among the most dangerous of the prescription drugs—have been declining in use by 12th graders since 2009, when 9 percent indicated using them without medical supervision in the prior 12 months. Their use continued to drop significantly, from 7 percent in 2013 to 6 percent in 2014. Students are reporting that these drugs are increasingly difficult to obtain. Heroin use, which has grown among adult populations, remained stable for teens.

By contrast, past-year non-medical use of Adderall, an Rx stimulant often prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, (ADHD) remained relatively steady, at 6.8 percent for high school seniors. 

The Monitoring the Future survey continues to show that most teens obtain medicines from family and friends and some even abuse their own prescriptions.

Falmouth Stats 

Between 2009 and 2013 the Falmouth Prevention Partnership worked with the Falmouth Public Schools to implement the Communities That Care surveys in grades six through twelve. The results of the surveys are consistent with national findings documenting the steady decrease in substance use among teens. You can review the results of the three surveys conducted in Falmouth on the Partnership’s website at: falmouthprevention.org/community-profile-surveys.html. 

Some highlights for grade 12 include:

  • Past 30 Day Use of Alcohol dropped from 68.6 percent in 2009 to 56.1 percent in 2013.
  • Past 30 Day Use of Marijuana dropped from 42.8 percent in 2009 to 38.6 percent in 2013.
  • Past 30 Day Use of Prescription Pain Medication dropped rom 11.4 percent in 2009 to 1.4 percent in 2013.

Prevention is Key

Although it is not completely clear why there has been significant decreases in teen substance abuse recently, local, regional, and national prevention programs play an important role. In Falmouth, for example, the Partnership has sponsored or helped support several underage drinking programs including Parents Who Host Lose the Most, Project Sticker Shock, compliance checks at liquor stores, and Jack’s Pact in Falmouth High School.

Opiate abuse remains a serious problem locally and in the coming year there will be a greater effort to prevent and manage prescription pill and heroin addiction. More than $1,000,000 has been made available from the state and private sources to address the opiate issue on the Cape along with continued treatment and prevention innovations from Gosnold.  

Although there is some good news in the national and local survey results, the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away. According to Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Even though the indicators are very good news, at the same time we cannot become complacent. This is a stage where their (teens) brains are most vulnerable. We need to continue our prevention efforts.”

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