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A Decade of Drug Use by High School Students

Every two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asks more than 13,000 high school students across America about the things they do that put them at risk. We’ve mapped the results from 10 of the survey’s questions to discover how the use of drugs and alcohol in high schools changed between 2003 and 2013. Plus, we examine the latest trends from 2014.

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Throughout this article, we’ll be using results from two different national surveys to examine drug use by high school students. The maps you’ll see are based on data from the High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey (carried out every two years, most recently in 2013), while the red/green/yellow line graphs visualize findings from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.

The first maps, above, use answers to the broadest drug-related question on the High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey. It asks students if they were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug at any time in the previous 12 months while on school property. The results for this question are, therefore, a good general indicator of drug activity in high schools and a good place for us to begin.

We can see that in 2013, fewer students said they had dealt with drugs on school property in the previous 12 months than in any other year since 2003. The data also show that more male students answered yes to this question than female students (24.5% vs. 19.7%), and among males, prevalence was higher for Hispanic individuals (28.1%) than white (23.1%) and black students (21.7%).

Averaging the available data between 2003 and 2013 shows that the five states with the highest prevalence for this question were Arizona (34.1%), Hawaii (33.6%), New Mexico (32.6%), Nevada (32.5%), and Georgia (31.2%). The five with the lowest were Iowa (12.5%), Pennsylvania (16.1%), Mississippi (16.8%), Oklahoma (17.9%), and Kansas (18.2%).

Overall, the trend for this question is moving in a positive direction.

Results from 2014

MTF, by the University of Michigan, which surveyed thousands of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in 2014, reveals that students’ perception of the availability of illicit drugs has continued to decline. However, illegal drug use in the past month, shown on the graph above, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have changed very much since 2003. That’s because this graph, given that it includes all illegal drugs, is flattened out somewhat by the steady and continuing use of marijuana. In actual fact, except for marijuana, there have been fewer drugs changing hands on school grounds in the last few years than in the past and less substance abuse by 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students.

We’ll address each drug type individually to see where the biggest changes have occurred.

Alcohol is the most common drug consumed by high school students. Since 2003, the nationwide prevalence of students who drank alcohol at least once in the previous 30 days hasn’t dropped below 34%. However, in 2013, it was 10% lower than in 2003, which is pretty significant. It’s been dropping since before then, too. In 1991, current alcohol use by high school students nationwide was 50.8%.

Between 2003 and 2013, the five states with the highest average prevalence for this question were Arizona (44.8%), North Dakota (44.4%), Louisiana (43.9%), Montana (43.8%), and New Jersey (43.5%). The five with the lowest were Utah (16.4%), Virginia (28.9%), Hawaii (31.2%), Alaska (32.5%), and Nebraska (34.5%). (This won’t be the only time Utah has a far lower average than all other states.)

In 2013, slightly more female students reported drinking alcohol recently than male students (35.5% vs. 34.4%), but a more significant difference can be seen between racial groups: 29.6% of black students said that they were current drinkers in 2013, compared to 37.5% of Hispanic students – a gap of almost 8 percentage points. An even larger difference can be seen between 10th and 12th grade students. 30.9% of 10th grade students said they recently drank alcohol, compared to 46.8% of 12th graders. This is a trend we’ll see in most of the drug types that follow: The older high school students are, the more likely it is they’ve tried an illegal substance.

Results from 2014

The MTF survey shows a continued decline in alcohol use by all grade levels, as well as a significant drop over the last five years in binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row in the previous two weeks). In 2014, 19.4% of high school seniors said they participated in binge drinking, which was down 12 percentage points from a high of 31.5% in 1998.

So far, then, we’ve seen a decline in both the prevalence of illegal drugs on school property and the number of students who admit to recently drinking alcohol. Have they also been smoking fewer cigarettes?

Current cigarette use by high school students has been on the decline just like recent alcohol consumption. In 1997, 36.4% of students nationwide said they’d smoked a cigarette in the previous 30 days. In 2003, it was 21.9%. In 2013, it had fallen to an all-time low of 15.7%. And just like current alcohol use, current cigarette use was lowest in Utah in every year from 2003 to 2013. Over the same period, it was highest most often in Kentucky (25.5%), then South Dakota (24.3%), Oklahoma (23.7%), West Virginia
(23.7%), and Tennessee (22.9%). As mentioned, it was lowest in Utah (very low – 6.9%), then Hawaii (13%), Virginia (13%), Rhode Island (13.8%), and Maryland (13.9%).

While 15.7% of students in 2013 smoked a cigarette at least once in the previous 30 days, only 3.8% did so on school property (and this figure hasn’t changed much over the last decade). 48% said they had tried to quit during the previous 12 months, which dropped from 2001 to 2013 (57.4%–48.0%), but didn’t significantly change from 2011 to 2013.

Results from 2014

MTF confirms that smoking by students has continued to drop and was, in 2014, at its lowest rate since the survey began. In 1997, when it was at its highest, nearly a quarter of seniors smoked on a daily basis. In 2014, that number dropped to 6.7%. However, other types of tobacco use remain popular. For instance, MTF reveals that past-year hookah use by 12th grade students was at 22.9% (the highest it had been since hookah use was included on the survey in 2010).

There’s also been some concern caused by the use of e-cigarettes because, while their long-term health effects are unknown, only 14.2% of 12th grade students in 2014 considered them harmful.

The maps above are the first so far that don’t seem to show a nationwide decrease in prevalence. In other words, the colors don’t get much lighter as we move along the timeline.

The data confirms it: From 1991 to 2013, there was a significant increase in the current use of marijuana by high school students. It went from 14.7% to 23.4%. And although there wasn’t much of an increase
between 2011 (23.1%) and 2013 (23.4%), the rate certainly didn’t drop either. In 2013, current marijuana use was lowest in – no surprise here – Utah (7.6%). It was lowest in Utah for every year from 2003 to 2013. It was highest in 2013 in New Mexico (27.8%). The prevalence of having tried marijuana before the age of 13 increased from 1991 to 1999 and then decreased from 1999 to 2013 (11.3%–8.6%).

Current marijuana use was higher among black (28.9%) and Hispanic (27.6%) students than white students (20.4%). The key result, though, is that marijuana use among high school students, unlike the other drugs we’ve looked at so far, has not declined in the last few years. Survey responses from 2014 might shed some light on why this is the case.

Results from 2014

MTF’s 2014 survey shows that, while marijuana use remained about the same in 2014 as the previous few years, the percentage of students who perceived the drug as harmful dropped. Most students didn’t think smoking marijuana occasionally is bad for the user,
and only 36.1% said that doing so regularly poses a great risk (compared to 52.4% in 2009). Perhaps most interestingly, marijuana use continued to exceed the use of cigarettes by students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades (21.2% of 12th graders said they’d smoked
marijuana in the last 30 days, compared to 13.6% who smoked cigarettes).

It seems likely that marijuana use by high schoolers will continue at a similar level, or even increase, given how many states have revised their laws on marijuana possession and consumption.

Now we’re moving onto the more serious drugs – at least in terms of the punishments they carry for possession. The nationwide average for recent ecstasy use has fluctuated since 2005, but has been consistently lower than in 2003, when it was 11.1%. In 2013, 6.6% of high schoolers said they’d tried ecstasy at least once, but in certain states, the number was much higher. Nevada had the most students who had tried the drug, at 9.2%. (Nevada also had the highest average between 2003 and 2013.) Nebraska had the lowest in 2013, at 3.2%. It’s important to remember, though, that data was not collected by the survey in several states, so it’s possible Nevada and Nebraska actually might not have had the most and least out of all 50 states.

Male students in 2013 were more likely to have tried ecstasy than female students (7.6% vs. 5.5%), and more Hispanic students (9.4%) said they’d tried the drug than white (5.8%) or black students (4.4%).

Results from 2014

The use of MDMA declined from 2013 into 2014. For instance, it dropped from 3.6% among 10th graders in 2013 to 2.3% in 2014.
And both figures were significantly lower than in 2001, when usage peaked at 6.2%.

There was a period in 2005 when use by 10th and 12th graders was about the same, and in 2010 more 10th graders said they had tried ecstasy than 12th grade students, although, since 2012, the roles have reversed once more.

The use of cocaine by high school students was lower in 2013 (5.5%) than any year since 2003, when it was 8.7%. The usual trends still apply though: More male students in 2013 said they had tried cocaine than female students, and lifetime use had increased as students got older. Probably the biggest difference in demographic groups can be seen between black students, of which 2.1% said in 2013 they’d tried cocaine, and Hispanic students, whose prevalence was much higher, at 9.5%. That’s almost one in 10. White students sat in the middle, at 4.8%.

Between 2003 and 2013, the five states with the highest prevalence of cocaine use by high schoolers were Arizona (12.8%), its neighboring state of New Mexico (11.5%), New Mexico’s neighboring state of Texas (10.4%), and, moving a few states back west, Nevada (9.0%). Mississippi (4.7%), New Jersey (5.1%), Iowa (5.3%), Utah (5.4%), and Nebraska (5.4%) had the lowest averages during the same period.

Results from 2014

Cocaine use in 2014 remained at about the same level for 8th and 12th grade students as in 2013, but fell very slightly (-0.7 percentage points) for 10th graders.

Survey results also show that students said they felt cocaine was less available than their counterparts had reported in previous years.

Meth use saw a consistent and steady decline between 2003 and 2013. In fact, it more than halved between those two years. Males in 2013 were only slightly more likely to have used it than females, but almost 3.5 times more Hispanic students said they’d tried meth than black students.

Between 2003 and 2013, Nevada had the highest prevalence for this question, with 8.3% of high school students in the state saying they had tried meth at least once before (5 percentage points higher than the national average). Louisiana (7.3%), Arizona (7.3%), Ohio (7.0%), and West Virginia (6.9%) were 2nd to 5th highest. New Jersey (2.5%), Pennsylvania (3.5%), Massachusetts (3.6%), Illinois (3.6%), and Colorado (3.6%) had the lowest prevalence.

Results from 2014

In 2014, 13.7% of students polled by MTF said that they thought meth was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get. This is a smaller number than any other year since 1990, when the question was first asked.

Moreover, only 0.3% of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders said they’d used meth in the previous 30 days. As well as being fractionally less than 2013, this number is also lower than any other year the question was asked.

Drugs don’t come much more serious than heroin, so it’s perhaps no surprise that so few high schoolers report having tried it. In 2013, 2.2% nationwide said they’d used heroin at least once before, lower than any other year in the decade. Proportionally speaking, more than double the number of Hispanic students (3.4%) had tried it than black students (1.6%).

Between 2003 and 2013, Iowa (1.8%), New Jersey (1.8%), Wisconsin (2.0%), Oklahoma (2.1%), and Nebraska (2.1%) had the lowest prevalence of lifetime heroin use. Louisiana (5.9%), New Mexico (4.6%), Arkansas (4.6%), Arizona (4.2%), and Wyoming (4.0%) had the highest.

Results from 2014

Past-year heroin use remained very low in 2014, despite seeing an increase in use by adults over the age of 26 in 2013. Only 0.3% of students said they’d used heroin in the previous 30 days, which is half the number it was in the year 2000.

Between 2013 and 2014, the perceived availability of heroin by 12th graders also dropped, from 22.1% saying it was easy to get
to 20.2%.

The use of steroids by young people to build muscle and increase athletic performance has been covered a lot in the media in recent years. One study, from 2012, found that about 5% of high school students had used anabolic steroids to bulk up1. The figures from CDC’s survey are a little lower, though. In 2013, 3.2% of high schoolers admitted to having used steroids before (fewer than any other year in that decade). Male students were almost twice as likely to have used steroids as females, and Hispanic students had a higher prevalence than white or black students.

Louisiana (6.8%) had the most students who had tried steroids between 2003 and 2013, followed by Arkansas (5.6%), Alabama (5.5%), Arizona (5.3%), and Kentucky (5.2%). Iowa (2.4%), South Dakota (2.6%), New Jersey (2.6%), Colorado (2.9%), and Pennsylvania (3%) had the lowest prevalence.

Results from 2014

As with most other illegal drugs, students in 2014 perceived steroids to be harder to acquire than in previous years. 22% said they were fairly easy or very easy to get, compared to 28.5% in 2013.

However, disapproval of taking steroids in 2014 isn’t as high as in previous years. 87.5% of 12th graders said they disapproved or strongly disapproved of them in 2014, compared to 88.2% in 2013, and 90.4% in 2012. Only 0.5% of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders said they used steroids in the 30 days before they were surveyed, which is about the same number as the previous eight years.

Inhalants (such as paints and sprays) is the only “drug” besides alcohol for which prevalence is higher among female than male high school students. 10% of females in 2013 said they’d inhaled a solvent at some point in their lives, compared to 7.9% of males. More Hispanic students (11.7%) had used an inhalant than white (8.6%) and black (6.8%) students.

Prevalence nationwide was down in 2013 to 8.9%, from 11.4% in 2012. Between 2003 and 2013, it was highest in Arkansas (14.9%), Wyoming (14.9%), West Virginia (14.1%), Indiana (13.9%), and Louisiana (13.7%). It was lowest in Vermont (8.3%), Colorado (9.2%), Virginia (9.3%), Wisconsin (9.4%), and Iowa (9.6%).

Results from 2014

The use of inhalants by 10th and 12th grade high school students (current, past-year, and lifetime), is at its lowest since the MTF survey first asked them about it. In 2014, only 5.3% of 8th graders said they’d used an inhalant in the previous year, compared to 8.1% in 2009, and there was a peak prevalence of 12.8% in 1995.

However, it’s interesting to note that inhalants is the only drug type which has a higher prevalence among 8th graders than 10th or 12th grade students (as the graph to the right shows).

Viewed together, these graphs tell the story of how students have altered their drug use since 2003. The first graph, as previously mentioned, gives the impression that not much has changed, but when you factor out the use of marijuana, which has gone up over the last decade and remained about the same since 2013, the picture gets clearer. Fewer students are taking drugs than in the past – or perhaps just lying more about not taking them.

All three grades have been smoking fewer cigarettes, with smoking being more common among 12th graders than 10th graders and 10th graders than 8th graders.

The gap between the yellow and green parts of the graph above shows that current marijuana use rises sharply once a student reaches 10th grade.

Ecstasy use has seen erratic fluctuations over the last decade and, in 2010, more 10th grade students said they’d recently taken it than 12th graders. This has since reversed, and use by all three grades has declined significantly in 2014.

Twice as many 12th graders in 2014 said they had used cocaine in the previous month than 8th graders (1.0% vs. 0.5%). Cocaine use in general has been dropping over the last decade.

Heroin, being such a serious drug, has the lowest prevalence among students and unlike the other drugs, levels of use are similar between 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.

Meth use saw a dramatic decline between 2003 and 2007, and since then has remained relatively steady and very low. In 2014, cough medicines containing DXM (similar to meth), saw a decline in use among 8th graders.

Substantially more 12th graders used steroids between 2003 and 2014 than 8th or 10th graders. In 2014, 0.9% of 12th graders said they’d used steroids in the previous 30 days, compared to only 0.2% of 8th graders. Although there has been a very gradual decline in steroid use overall, there wasn’t a significant drop between 2013 and 2014.

Inhalants are the only drug type that has been consistently more popular among 8th graders than 12th graders. This is probably because paints and sprays are more readily available to 8th grade kids than marijuana or cocaine. Use of inhalants has been substantially declining though.

Note: The “most” and “least” rankings for states only include states for which data was available in that year. It’s possible other states would have ranked higher or lower than those listed if data were available for them.


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