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America’s Youth and Drug Use

Table of Contents

In our nation’s ongoing war on drugs, public concern about youth substance use has long been a driving force. The infamous plot of “Reefer Madness featured high schoolers driven to violence by the psychedelic effects of marijuana. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign urged kids to resist peer pressure. More recently, President Trump promised his administration’s enforcement efforts would ensure a “drug-free generation of American children.” Through the decades, the content of these appeals remains unchanged: Vulnerable and impressionable, America’s youths need protection from temptation.

It’s easy to dismiss this rhetoric as little more than political alarmism, but teen drug use is a real and constantly evolving challenge, creating difficult choices for parents, teachers, law enforcement officials and treatment professionals. Just how common is drug use among those aged 12 to 17? We studied data from SAMHSA’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to find out.

Our findings suggest not only which substances are most commonly used by youths, but also which environmental factors correspond to increased risk. To learn the hard truths of drug use among American children and teens, keep reading.

Experimentation, by Age and Substance

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According to our data, nearly a quarter of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 – roughly 5.7 million minors in total – have used illegal drugs before. As with adult Americans, the most commonly used substance was marijuana, with the percentage of teens who have used it climbing steadily as the teen years progressed. Conversely, inhalant usage, the second-most popular drug among teenagers overall, stayed relatively consistent between ages 12 and 17. Perhaps because these substances can be found in ordinary household products, access doesn’t substantially increase as young people grow older.

Some may be surprised to learn of the popularity of hallucinogens among American youth; they were used by about 710,000 children and teens aged 12 to 17, more than had taken ecstasy, cocaine, or methamphetamine combined. Thankfully, but still jarring, minors used heroin and crack even more rarely. For public health experts, the heroin figure represents the rare bright spot in the ongoing battle against the opiate epidemic. And though prescription drugs, heroin, and fentanyl are ravaging other demographics, opioid misuse among teens has actually declined in recent years.

Teen Substance Use to Scale

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Data describing teen drug use are startling enough in the abstract, but their true impact is best understood on a familiar scale. Of all Americans aged 12 to 17, 15.8 percent had used an illicit drug in the past year. That equates to more than 4 million students, or enough to fill nearly 160,000 classrooms using typical class sizes. Of that total, slightly less than 3 million students had used marijuana in the last 12 months, while the number using inhalants and hallucinogens within that time frame hovered around 500,000.

Of course, children change dramatically between 12 and 17 – and the degree of concern necessary might shift with age as well. Marijuana use at age 12 seems particularly concerning, though smoking it at 17 can also produce grave consequences. Still, our data show that roughly 10,000 American students younger than 12 have also used marijuana – a finding likely to concern even the most nonchalant parent. Some research suggests consuming marijuana in the early teen years may cause learning challenges later, and we can only speculate regarding its effects on even younger brains.

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In considering the rates of drug use for this 12- to 17-year-old age group, the question of access inevitably arises. While some teens obtain illicit substances from their direct peers, it seems unlikely that this source accounts for all youth drug purchases – just 2 percent of Americans aged 12 to 17 have sold drugs before.

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Are young children lured into drug use by predatory adults who view them as easy targets? Another possibility lies in dark web transactions: Could America’s youth be buying drugs online? Other dealers apparently employ even bolder methods, using social media platforms to advertise their wares to young audiences. Or perhaps parents themselves become unwitting suppliers: Many teens find drugs by searching through their family’s medicine cabinets.

Gettings Straight-A’s or Getting High

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For many young Americans, education and drug prevention are inextricably entwined. Schools are the primary vehicle for anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E., which Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently moved to reinstate despite serious concerns about its effectiveness. But our data suggest that youths who use drugs are likely to feel alienated from school already. Students who had used drugs at least once in the last year were twice as likely to report hating school as those who did not. They were also substantially less likely to find school meaningful.

Teens who had taken drugs within the last year also reported less positive feedback about their schoolwork, which likely reflects the inverse correlation between drug use and academic performance. As grade ranges declined, rates of drug use in the past year rose steadily: More than 30 percent of those with a D average or lower used drugs in the last year, whereas just 11 percent of students with an A average said the same. According to at least one study, this connection may be just as evident in college, where drug and alcohol consumption correlates with lower grades.

Parenting and Prevention

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Many parents wonder if their own attitudes and behaviors can reduce the chances that their children will use drugs. While no foolproof parenting strategy exists in this regard, we do see that some forms of parental concern seem to correlate with reduced rates of drug use. These include limiting television time and checking their child’s homework, but it’s possible these habits simply indicate a healthy and stable dynamic in the home. Other conscientious parenting choices seemed to have no effect whatsoever: Kids who spoke with their parents about drinking and smoking were no more or less likely to use drugs.

Indeed, some forms of conflict correlated with higher rates of drug use. Youths were twice as likely to use drugs if their parents did not check or help them with homework, or if parents failed to express their pride. They were also 12% more likely to use drugs if they fought with their parents. Once again, though, there’s insufficient evidence for interpreting causation. For example, it’s possible that many parents spar with their children precisely because they are using drugs already.

Isolation and Intoxication

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Teenage brains are at a complex and crucial developmental stage; this can produce swings from apathy to intense emotion. Accordingly, feelings of alienation from others is quite common – and youths who used drugs in the past year were particularly likely to feel this way. They were 37 percent more likely than sober peers to feel unable to participate in social activities due to their emotions. Additionally, they were far more likely to feel they had no one to talk to about serious challenges and less likely to talk to their parents.

Interestingly, teens who had used drugs in the past year were also less likely to find religious beliefs important to them personally or report religious ideas influenced their decisions. This finding might lead some to advocate religious involvement among American youth. Yet others have expressed serious concerns about religious messaging in some anti-drug programs aimed at teens, including one curriculum developed by the Church of Scientology.

Never Too Soon to Be Sober

Our results suggest teen drug use remains quite common and often entails grave conflict and consequences. We do not mean to shame millions of American teenagers for their choices by presenting these findings. Rather, we hope to urge our nation’s adults to remain vigilant about the threats drugs represent to our children and to consider new solutions. Law enforcement will be an integral part of our nation’s progress on this issue, but education and treatment resources must be incorporated as well.

If you or someone you love needs help confronting substance abuse, ProjectKnow is your source of expert information and trustworthy treatment recommendations. You’re never too young or too old to receive the help you deserve – but the sooner you seek solutions, the better.

Methodology

We used SAMHSA’s NSDUH data to explore the illicit drug use of America’s youth aged 12 to 17. Some of the calculations in this analysis were done using the NSDUH 2016 public-use files, while others used SAMHSA’s online detailed tables which are based on their restricted-use files. Population estimations that were not presented in SAMHSA’s detailed tables were calculated using 2016 census data for ages 12 to 17 only.

As stated in the NSDUH quality assessment of public-use files: “NSDUH’s public-use files (PUFs) maintain high data quality and comparability with NSDUH’s restricted-use files (RUFs), which will provide confidence to researchers and policymakers for making policies and public health decisions based on PUF data.”

The number of classrooms was calculated using an average class size of 25 students.

Fair Use Statement

If you’d like to share our findings regarding substance use with families in need of help, you’re welcome to use our information and images for noncommercial purposes. When you do, please provide a link back to this page so that your readers can explore the full story.