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Juveniles on Drugs, Part 2


In the first part of Juveniles on Drugs, we used data from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey and SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health to explore three important measures of drug use among young people. In this edition, we will explore three more, beginning with how 10th Graders perceive the risks of various licit and illicit substances.


The MTF survey asks students if they consider various drugs a “great risk” to the people who use them. The line chart above shows, across nine substances, what percentage of the 10th-graders who were asked this question between 2001 and 2015 said yes. The use of heroin with a needle has consistently been considered a great risk by the highest percentage of 10th-graders over the 15 years covered, with 83.3% of respondents saying that taking it occasionally posed a great risk. This is important because the perceived harmfulness of heroin, as well as several other drugs, has long served as a strong indicator of use. Put another way, the more young people think it’s dangerous, the less likely they are to use it.

The drug with the most dramatic slope in its line on the chart above is undoubtedly marijuana. Since the mid- to late-2000s, the perceived risk of marijuana use by 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students has fallen dramatically. In 2015, 43.2% of 10th-graders said that using marijuana regularly posed a great risk, compared to 62.8% in 2001 and 82.1% in 1991. In contrast, the perceived risk of smoking cigarettes has gradually been increasing, reaching its highest level ever in 2015 among grades 8 and 10 and close to its highest in grade 12. MTF researchers note, however, that the perceived risk among the three grades shows a clear age effect: “… by the time most youngsters fully appreciate the hazards of smoking, many already have initiated the behavior.”

At first glance, ecstasy appears to have been perceived as dramatically more dangerous since 2013, after gradually falling since 2004; however, the increase was actually due to a change in the way young people have been asked about the drug. Specifically, since 2013, Molly has been mentioned alongside ecstasy, which has spiked respondents’ perception of risk. This is interesting because in many cases, Molly is no more or less free from adulterants than ecstasy tablets.


As well as how he or she perceives its risks, the chance of a young person taking a drug is also controlled by his or her ability to easily acquire it. Above we can see how all three grades judged the availability of 10 substances, from 2001 to 2015. The overall trend is revealed by the general downward sloping of practically every line/drug, which signifies that most drugs have become harder for young people to get their hands on. This is especially true for the youngest of the three grades. Marijuana, for instance, was only considered fairly easy or very easy to acquire by 37% of 8th-graders in 2015, compared to 41.1% in 2005 and 52.4% in 1995. Marijuana availability rates have also fallen substantially for 10th- and 12th-graders.

Cigarettes, despite being the second-most easily available substance overall, have also seen major decreases, especially among 8th- and 10th-graders. The sharpest increase seen across the three grades appears to be for sedatives among 12th-graders in 2004, but this again was due to a change in how the question was phrased.

So far, we’ve seen that 2015 saw no significant increases in drug use rates and that drugs have generally become less available to young people in recent years. However, despite these encouraging results, nearly a 1.5 million 12- to 17-year-olds are trying illicit drugs for the first time each year. To find out why a certain proportion of young people persist in abusing drugs, we need to look at what factors in their lives correlate with drug use.


Alongside questions about how they perceive and use drugs, students surveyed by MTF are also quizzed more generally about their lives, on topics including their social behavior, families, and friends. The chart above focuses on how five types of deviant behavior correlate with 8th- and 10th-grade students’ use of marijuana in the past year. Across all five, the students who engaged in the deviant behaviors had significantly higher rates than those who abstained from the behaviors completely. For instance, 39.7% of 8th- and 10th-graders who said they hurt someone badly enough to require bandages or a doctor used marijuana in the past year, compared to 16.4% of students who didn’t hurt anyone. Trespassing showed an even larger gap: Nearly 3.5 times more students who trespassed five or more times in the past year said they used marijuana than students who didn’t trespass at all. The biggest difference, though, is seen between students who sold an illegal drug five-plus times and those who didn’t sell one. A massive 85.1% of the former group reporting using marijuana, which was more than five times more than the non-drug selling group.

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether drug use causes these kinds of deviant behaviors or vice versa (or if they are both a product of something else). All we know from these numbers is that there’s a strong correlation between kids breaking rules and taking drugs. The only deviant behavior of the five above that isn’t explicitly criminal is “running away from home.”

In the next edition of Juveniles on Drugs, we’ll explore how a young person’s home life correlates with his or her use of a dozen different drugs, and see that there are substantial differences between kids who live with both parents, just one, or neither.

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