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Substance abuse

According to the 22nd national survey in the ongoing Monitoring the Future Study, illicit drug use among American schoolchildren rose again in 1996.

The increase in the proportion of students using any illicit drug in the 12 months prior to the survey continued a steady increase which began in 1991 among eighth-graders and in 1992 among 10th- and 12th-graders. For eighth-graders, the proportion using any illicit drug in the prior 12 months has more than doubled since 1991 (from 11 percent to 24 percent), and since 1992 it has nearly doubled among 10th-graders (from 20 percent to 38 percent) and risen by about half among 12th-graders (from 27 percent to 40 percent). (The prevalence rates are higher with the inclusion of inhalant use.)

The Monitoring the Future Study began with a series of annual nationwide surveys of American high school seniors between 1975 and 1990. In 1991 nationally representative samples of eighth- and 10th-grade students were added to the study. Each annual survey since 1991 has been based on about 50,000 eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students in approximately 424 public and private secondary schools nationwide. The authors of the forthcoming report of the 1996 results are social psychologists Lloyd Johnston, Patrick O'Malley, and Jerald Bachman.

Marijuana use accounted for much of the overall increase in illicit drug use, as it continued its strong resurgence. All measures of marijuana use showed an increase at all three grade levels in 1996. Among eighth-graders, annual prevalence (use in the prior 12 months) tripled from 6 percent in 1991 to 18 percent in 1996. Among 10th-graders, annual prevalence more than doubled from a low point in 1992 of 15 percent to 34 percent in 1996. Among 12th-graders it increased by nearly two-thirds, from a low point of 22 percent in 1992 to 36 percent in 1996. While the rate of increase in 1996 remained high in grades 8 and 10 in 1996, the rate may be decelerating at the 12th-grade level.

Of particular concern, according to Johnston, is the continuing rise in daily marijuana use. Nearly one in 20 (4.9 percent) of today's high school seniors is a current daily marijuana user, and one in every 30 10th-graders (3.5 percent). While "only" 1.5 percent of eighth-graders use at that level, that still represents a near doubling of the rate in 1996 alone.

It is clear, however, that marijuana use has moved up sharply in the 90s. At the low point in 1992, only 22 percent said they had used marijuana in the prior 12 months (versus 36 percent in 1996) and only 2 percent were using it daily (versus about 5 percent today). Further, the proportional increases have been even greater for the younger children.

A number of the illicit drugs other than marijuana also continued longer-term increases into 1996, although in general their increases have been much more gradual.

The annual prevalence of LSD rose in all three grade levels in 1996, continuing longer-term increases which began at least as early as 1991. (In the 1996 survey the proportions reporting any LSD use in the prior 12 months were 4 percent, 7 percent, and 9 percent for eighth- 10th- and 12th-grades, respectively.) However, the 30-day prevalence rates, which tend to be more sensitive to very recent change, suggest that there may have been a recent turnaround in LSD use; the data show no change at the eighth-grade level and statistically significant declines in use among 10th- and 12th-grades.

Hallucinogens other than LSD, taken as a class, continued gradual increases in 1996 at all three grade levels, though the annual prevalence rates are considerably lower than for LSD: 2 percent, 3 percent, and 4 percent, respectively.

The use of cocaine in any form continued a gradual upward climb; however, most of the 1995 to 1996 changes do not reach statistical significance. Crack cocaine also continued a gradual upward climb among eighth- and 10th-graders, but not 12th-graders. The annual prevalence rates for use of cocaine in any form are 3 percent, 4 percent, and 5 percent for grades 8, 10, and 12, respectively, while for crack use specifically, they are 2 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent.

Several other classes of illicit drugs also have shown very gradual increases since the early 1990s, including tranquilizers and two drug classes reported only for 12th- graders--- barbiturates and opiates other than heroin. All three continued to increase very modestly in 1996, although few comparisons reached statistical significance for the one-year interval.

The longer-term gradual rise in the use of amphetamine stimulants also continued at the eighth-and 10th-grade levels, but use has been fairly level among 12th-graders for two years now. Annual prevalence rates are 9 percent, 12 percent, and 10 percent for grades 8, 10, and 12, respectively. However, two forms of methamphetamine have been on the increase over the past two years---crystal methamphetamine or "ice," which is usually burned in rock form with the fumes being inhaled, and MDMA, known more commonly as ecstasy.

Questions about the students' own use of MDMA (ecstasy) were added for the first time in the 1996 survey. They resulted in quite high levels of self-reported use, with nearly 5 percent of the 10th- and 12th-graders reporting some use in the prior 12 months, and about 2 percent of the eighth-graders. (Other sources have suggested that MDMA has been popular at raves and in the club scene.)

"The fact that there are other non-controlled substances which have adopted the ecstasy name---like herbal ecstasy---gives us some pause in reporting these findings," Johnston cautions. "While we ask specifically about MDMA, and note that it goes by the name of 'ecstasy,' some youngsters may be including these other substances in their answers; but even if they are, they are still trying to get a similar high."

Only the 12th-graders are asked about the use of ice, but since 1992 their annual prevalence rate has more than doubled, from 1.3 percent to 2.8 percent.

While the annual prevalence rates for heroin remain quite low in 1996 compared to most other drugs, they are nevertheless two to two and one-half times higher than they were a few years ago. Annual prevalence rates are 1.6 percent, 1.2 percent, and 1.0 percent in eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grades, respectively. Use of heroin by means other than injection no doubt accounts for much of the increase in use. Use without a needle is now more prevalent at each grade level than use with a needle. "Many of these young people may be laboring under the dangerous misconception that they cannot become addicted to heroin if they use it in a non-injectable form," observes Johnston. "Unfortunately, they can."

Alcohol use among American secondary students generally has remained fairly stable in the past few years, though at rates which most adults would probably consider unacceptably high. This remains true in 1996. The measures of self-reported drunkenness and occasions of having five or more drinks in a row during the prior two weeks, however, have inched up by 2 to 4 percentage points at all three grade levels in recent years (though self-reported drunkenness actually declined some in 1996 among 12th- graders). In 1996 the proportions of students having five or more drinks in a row during the two weeks preceding the survey were 16 percent, 25 percent, and 30 percent for the eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, respectively.

Attitudes and Beliefs about Drugs

This research team has shown that, in general, when young people come to see a drug as more dangerous, or more disapproved by their peers, they are less likely to use it. The inhalant results, just mentioned, provide the most recent example; similar patterns were evident previously when marijuana use declined from the late 70s to the early 90s, and when cocaine use declined from the mid-80s to the early 90s. Then, in the early 90s, when perceived risk and peer disapproval began to decline, particularly for marijuana, the use of these drugs began to rise again.

In 1996 disapproval of marijuana use continued to decline sharply; but the perceived dangers, while continuing to decline, did so much more slowly than in the past few years. "We view this as an encouraging sign," comments Johnston. "Also encouraging is the fact that the decline in the degree of risk associated with the use of crack and powder cocaine appears to have ended at all grade levels. Although peer disapproval of the use of these drugs still is declining, particularly among the 12th-graders, I think there is a good chance that it, too, will stabilize next year, which could well translate into an end to the increase in cocaine use."

The 12th-graders are the only ones asked about the dangers they perceive to be associated with heroin use, and, as with the inhalants, there is a significant increase in perceived risk in 1996, perhaps presaging a halt in the gradual rise in heroin use, as well.

And, while both the risks perceived to be associated with LSD use and disapproval of use had been declining steadily in recent years, they showed little further decline in 1996 in any grade. (Recall that there are indications of a possible recent decline in LSD use.)

"For many of the illicit drugs there is encouragement in what we are seeing happen to key attitudes and beliefs, even if they have not translated yet into changed behavior," according to Johnston. "With marijuana, however, we are still in a period of sharp increase in use among the younger teens, and their attitudes and beliefs about the harmfulness of marijuana continue to migrate in the wrong direction."

The Causes of the Increase

"The erosion of peer norms against drug use, and the declines in the proportions of students who see them as dangerous, undoubtedly have several explanations," states Johnston. "Among the most likely, in my opinion, is the fact that this most recent crop of youngsters grew up in a period in which drug use rates were down substantially from what they had been 10 to 15 years earlier. This gave youngsters less opportunity to learn from others' mistakes and resulted in what I call 'generational forgetting' of the hazards of drugs, as the process of generational replacement has taken place."

A second likely cause, according to the investigators, is that in recent years youngsters have heard less about the dangers of drugs from a number of sectors that have paid less attention to the issue, including parents, schools, and the media. Schools are receiving less federal funding for drug abuse prevention; parents appear to be talking less about drugs to their children, according to other surveys; media news coverage of the drug issues plummeted in the early 90s; and the placement of anti-drug public service ads by the media also declined appreciably. In sum, in the 90s, youngsters have been hearing fewer cautions about drugs from many key sectors of the society.

The following table was excerpted from the "Monitoring the Future Study" and published in Newsweek Magazine, August 26, 1996, page 56).

Eighth Graders Who Have Used Drugs in their Lifetime

from a 22 year study conducted by the Univ. of Michigan

(in percentages of all eighth graders)
  1991 1995 % change
Crack 1.3 2.7 208
Heroin 1.2 2.3 192
Marijuana 10.2 19.9 195
Cocaine 2.3 4.2 183
Hallucinogens 3.2 5.2 163
Stimulants 10.5 13.1 125
Tranquilizers 3.8 4.5 118
Cigarettes 44 46.4 105
Been drunk 26.7 25.3 95
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