The latest edition of the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of adolescent drug use was released this week, and the benchmark study had decidedly mixed findings. MTF, one of the key measures of teen drug use, has been surveying 8th, 10th and 12th graders since 1975. This year's sample consisted of more than 44,000 students from 424 junior and senior high schools across the country. Overall, the study found, teen drug use has continued the slight upward trend evident since the early 1990s after declining from record highs in the late 1970s.
But only one drug, MDMA (ecstasy), showed a significant increase in use, the study found, and even for ecstasy, the rate of increase has begun to slow after several years of rapid growth. For 12th graders, 11.7% reported having used ecstasy at least once, more than double the figure from 1998, but only a .7% increase over last year.
"Since 1998, ecstasy use has roughly doubled among American teenagers," said lead investigator Lloyd Johnson in a prepared statement. "While we are seeing a continuing increase this year, we are also seeing evidence of a deceleration of this rise, as growing proportions of students are coming to see this drug as dangerous. In the past, we have seen a turnaround in use occur for other drugs as a result of more young people seeing them as dangerous," he added. "We have been saying for some time that the use of the drug will not turn around until young people begin to see its use as risky, and this year, for the first time, they are finally beginning to see it as more dangerous."
According to the study, the proportion of 12th graders saying there was a great risk in experimenting with ecstasy increased from 38% in 2000 to 46% last year.
But, Johnson warned, ease of access to the drug continues to increase. The proportion of 12th graders reporting easy access to ecstasy rose from 40% in 1999 to 62% last year. "This reflects an extremely rapid spread in availability, which is due in part to the fact that this drug is still reaching new communities," said Johnson. "Thus, even if fewer students are willing to use ecstasy in the schools where it has been present, that decline very likely has been more than offset by the continuing rapid diffusion of the drug to additional areas."
Ecstasy's popularity has ironically been bad news for LSD, which has been dropping in popularity among 8th and 10th graders and remaining stagnant among seniors. The study's authors speculate that a substitution effect is occurring, with ecstasy "displacing LSD as a drug of choice."
The increase in ecstasy use, however, is more than offset by decreases in other drugs. Smoking or snorting heroin among 10th and 12th graders declined last year from historically high levels. That decline began a year earlier for 8th graders. MTF 2001 found that 1.5% of seniors had ever smoked or snorted heroin, down from 2.4% the year before.
But marijuana, by far the most popular illicit drug among teenagers, is holding steady, the study found. Nearly half -- 49% -- of seniors reported having used the drug, as did 40.1% of 10th graders and 20.4% of 8th graders. These numbers are an insignificant decline from the most recent peak of teen marijuana use in 1997. For seniors, for example, the decline from 1997 amounts to one-tenth of 1%.
Likewise, many other illicit drugs held steady as well or saw increases or decreases of less than 1%, among them injectable heroin (1.8% of seniors), cocaine (8.2% of seniors), crack (3.7% of seniors), and methamphetamine (6.9% of seniors).
Finally, MTF suggests that while use of any one drug may fluctuate wildly, the proportion of adolescents willing to use any drug is much more stable. While usage rates for any drug reflect factors specific to that drug -- risk perception, benefit perception, accessibility, peer group approval, knowledge of psychoactive effects -- the study noted, "the proportion of students prone to using such drugs and willing to cross normative barriers to such use change much more gradually."
Visit http://monitoringthefuture.org to examine the survey findings online.