Decline in Teen Opioid Abuse Continues

By Pat Anson, Editor

An annual survey that tracks teenage drug abuse continues to show a decline in the misuse of prescription opioid pain relievers, as well as heroin, alcohol, cigarettes, amphetamines and other substances.

The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study (MTF) has tracked drug abuse among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders since 1975. This year’s survey included nearly 45,000 students at 382 public and private schools in the United States.

The MTF survey tracked the steady rise in teenage abuse of prescription opioids in the 1990's, before the trend reversed itself in the last decade. For the fifth year in a row, the survey found there was a significant decline in the misuse of opioids by teens (reported in the survey as “Narcotics Other Than Heroin”).

About 5% of 12th graders reported using an opioid pain medication in the last year, including 4.4% who used Vicodin and 3.7% who used OxyContin.

The number of teens reporting that prescription opioids were “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get also continues to drop.

Most teens abusing prescription opioids reported getting them from friends or family members. About one-third reported getting them from their own prescriptions.

"The recent declines in the abuse of prescription pain medicines among teens are encouraging. The Partnership has been working for quite some time through both our Above the Influence program and the Medicine Abuse Project to help educate teens, parents and communities about the risks of medicine abuse and we are glad to see continued progress," said Marcia Lee Taylor, President and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

“While today's news about substance use among teens is mostly positive, we cannot let that take our focus off of the prescription drug and heroin crisis among other age groups.”

Despite widespread media reports about the so-called heroin “epidemic” in adults – heroin use among teens is at its lowest level since the MTF survey began. Past year use of heroin fell to 0.5% of 12th graders, an all-time low.

Use of several other illicit drugs – including MDMA (known as Ecstasy or Molly), amphetamines and synthetic marijuana – also showed a noted decline in this year's data. Use of alcohol and cigarettes reached their lowest points since the study began.

Marijuana, the most widely used illicit drug, did not show any significant change. After rising for several years, teenage marijuana use has leveled out since 2010, but still remains stubbornly high. In 2015, 12% of 8th ­graders, 25% of 10th­ graders and 35% of 12th­ graders reported using marijuana at least once in the past year. For the first time ever, daily marijuana use exceeds daily tobacco use among 12th graders.

"We are heartened to see that most illicit drug use is not increasing, non-medical use of prescription opioids is decreasing, and there is improvement in alcohol and cigarette use rates," said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which funded the MTF survey.

"However, continued areas of concern are the high rate of daily marijuana smoking seen among high school students, because of marijuana’s potential deleterious effects on the developing brains of teenagers, and the high rates of overall tobacco products and nicotine containing e-cigarettes usage."

One growing area of concern is the abuse of Adderall and other prescription amphetamines, which are typically used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) but are widely perceived as a study aid.  About 7.5% of 12th graders used those drugs in the past year.