In 1981, the Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health noted that “Children are one-third of our population and all of our future.” The message came at a crucial time because in the same year, the proportion of young people who had used an illicit drug by the time they left high school had reached an all-time high of 66%, an 11% increase from only six years prior.
35 years later – thanks to the University of Michigan, which has annually surveyed roughly 40,000 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students on their attitudes toward/use of illicit substances – we are able to assess the problem of substance use among young people, with a bird’s eye view.
In this first installment of Juveniles on Drugs, we will see what the data reveal about lifetime and past-year drug use among young people, as well as the average ages at which they first experiment with illicit substances.
After reaching its peak in 1981, the percentage of young people who said they had used an illicit drug began a long and gradual decline all the way until 1992, when it hit its low point. That’s roughly where the chart above begins. It separates the three groups polled by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey (aka MTF; our main data source), into three grades: 8th, 10th, and 12th. Together, they cover ages 12 to 17.
A couple of things stand out: the most obvious is that as a young person progresses from 8th to 12th grade, the chance of him or her having used an illicit drug sharply increases. In fact, in 2015, the average 12th-grader was more than twice as likely to have used an illicit drug than an 8th-grader (48.9% vs. 20.5%). The chart also shows what MTF researchers call the “relapse phase,” which is the period beginning in 1992 when drug use among young people steadily increased until 1999, when it reached a recent high of 55%. It then declined once more to 47% in 2009 and had, since 2011, remained between 48% and 50%.
The peaks and troughs in the graph paint a relatively positive picture of drug use among young people, at least when comparing recent years to a couple of decades ago. But it’s not a complete picture because the rate of illicit drug use is heavily affected by the usage rates of marijuana in particular, as it is easily the most commonly used illicit drug. To understand adolescent substance use on a deeper level, we need to look at each drug on an individual basis.
The chart above shows what proportion of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students (as one group) used substances from 10 different categories in the past year, alongside the total number of new 12- to 17-year-old users.
Easily the most-used substance is alcohol, which – while not an illicit substance in general – is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to consume. In 2015, 39.9% of young people said they’d consumed it in the past 12 months, a figure which has consistently fallen every single year since 1994. In fact, in 2015, alcohol use among 10th- and 12th-graders fell to their lowest levels across all measures since MTF first began surveying young people in 1975, and they were at or very close to historic lows for 8th-graders, too.
Lower rates of use are encouraging, of course, but 39.9% of students still adds to up a very large number. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, another nationally representative drug-related survey, estimated that 2.33 million 12- to 17-year-olds were new users of alcohol in 2014. And 1.41 million used an illicit drug (of whom 1.2 million tried marijuana). In 2014 and 2015, one in 30 12- to-17-year-olds used marijuana on a daily basis, which is 3.3 times more than in 1991, when it was about one in 100. Among 12th-graders only, the proportion in 2015 was much higher, with one in 17 using marijuana on a daily basis.
As for other, “harder” drugs, we can see that past-year usage rates are considerably and understandably lower. The use of cocaine, which in 2015 had an overall past-month usage rate of 1.7%, has seen a steady decline across all three grades over the last 16 years. Among 12th-graders, annual use in 2015 was at a historic low of 2.5%. There were, however, still 117,000 new 12- to 17-year-old cocaine users in 2014 by the NSDUH’s count (equivalent to every person in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the MTF study is analyzed).
A key part of understanding why young people take drugs lies in noticing when they first try them. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health asks more than 70,000 respondents when they first try drugs and separates their answers into two categories: (1) the average age of all persons who try various drugs and (2) the average age of persons who try the drugs before reaching the age of 21. Both averages are shown in the graphic above for 15 different substance categories.
We can see that none of the drugs is, on average and across all persons, first tried before the age of 17. The closest is alcohol, at 17.6, followed by cigarettes exactly a year later, at 18.6. Then come marijuana (19.4), LSD (19.7), and stimulants (22), all of which fall outside of high school. But if we consider only persons who first tried drugs before they were 21, we see something interesting. The average initiation ages aren’t 18, 19, or 20, they are 16 for any illicit drug, 16.1 for sedatives, 16.3 for marijuana, 17.3 for LSD, and so on. In other words, the people who start early really do start early.
There are several key factors that play a role in when a young person first chooses to use a particular substance, including how he or she perceives its benefits versus its drawbacks, and from a purely practical point of view, how easily they can acquire it.
In part two of Juveniles on Drugs, we’ll see how both of these factors have changed over the last 15 years, as well as how easy it is for young people to acquire illicit drugs, and how using one drug in particular correlates with a host of socially damaging behaviors. Skip ahead to part three to see how a young person’s home life correlates with his or her use of a dozen different drugs.
- The Monitoring the Future study, the University of Michigan, 2014 and 2015
- The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2014
- United States. Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health. (1981). Better health for our children: a national strategy : the report of the Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health to the United States Congress and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. [Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and Surgeon General.
- Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2015: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.
- United States Census Bureau, 2013.