Adolescent Drug Use in the United States

According to statistical data provided by the Betty Ford Center, children begin to be at great risk of starting to use drugs around the age of 13 or 14. This risk gradually escalates until the age of 16, which is described as being the “pivotal year” for teenagers who are more likely to be faced with peer pressure to try drugs, along with being given increasing amounts of freedom by their parents. After they reach age 18 the risk begins to subside, and by the 22nd year a young person is substantially less at risk of starting to use drugs or alcohol. It is important to know, therefore, what is actually going on in terms of adolescent drug use across the nation. For one thing, an understanding of the trends of drug use among teenagers can be useful for being able to predict what will happen in the near future as relates to the numbers of people who will be likely to be addicted to drugs as young adults. For another thing, understanding drug use trends can help you to spot problems with your own children and to help them avoid addiction before it gets started.

Every year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes its Monitoring the Future survey. For the 2012 survey, 45,449 students from nearly 400 public and private schools across the United States participated. The good news is that alcohol use has dropped to what NIDA describes as “historically low levels.” The bad news, however, is that the use of many other drugs is on the rise among teenagers. The most popular drug by far is marijuana, which 36.4 percent of high school seniors admit to having used in the past year. Marijuana use had been decreasing over the course of about a decade, but in the mid- to late-2000’s it began to shoot back up again. The second-most common drug after marijuana is one that is actually nearly the same as the first one on the list: synthetic marijuana. This drug, which is commonly referred to by the brand names Spice or K2, is an artificially manufactured version of cannabis which produces a similar high yet is reported to be anywhere from 2 to 10 times stronger and often results in overdose or calls to poison control centers. Synthetic marijuana was reported to have been used by 11.3 percent of 12th-graders. Counting natural and synthetic cannabis together, they are more than 6 times more common than the next most widely used type of drug.

Pharmaceutical Drug Abuse Is Common Among Teenagers

Pharmaceutical drugs, including both prescription and over-the-counter medications, were used by 14.8 percent of the young people who responded to the survey, and this category accounted for 6 out of the top 10 drugs. Out of these, the stimulant ADHD drug Adderall — a preparation of amphetamine which is essentially medical speed — was the leader, and was used by 7.6 percent of 12th-graders. The next-most common pharmaceutical drugs are reported as being Vicodin, cough medicine, tranquilizers, sedatives and OxyContin. In some cases, adolescents who abuse pharmaceutical drugs get them by raiding the family medicine cabinet and finding a parent’s or grandparent’s painkillers or tranquilizers. In other cases, such as with Adderall, the students are directly provided with the drugs with a prescription and either become addicted through normal use or after experimenting with a friend’s prescription. In spite of the vast amounts of effort and money that go into keeping kids off drugs, many of them are getting started on the road to addiction by taking the very drugs that parents are choosing to give them at the urging of a teacher or doctor. After marijuana and the different types of pharmaceutical drugs, other street drugs are far less common. For example, only 2.7 percent of high school seniors report having used cocaine, and this number has dropped by nearly half over the past 5 years.