Current Attitudes and Trends of American Teens About Drugs: Marijuana Returns

Current Attitudes and Trends of American Teens About Drugs: Marijuana Returns

Written by Dr. Cory Reich, Ph.D., Posted on , in Section Editors Picks

One of the most frequently asked questions by concerned parents is: “What are the “in” drugs and what are the attitudes and use amongst teenagers?” Staying abreast about all the new drugs as well as patterns and trends of use is a difficult tasks, not just for parents but for professionals. Just last week, I received a call from a friend who is on a drug coalition task force in his small community. He called to share with me that a popular teen at the local high school died from a drug overdose while another high profile figure in the local government was recently caught with drug possession. He then started to ask about some of the new synthetic man made drugs that are hitting their small town community. Drugs are no respecter of persons or community, being informed, providing education, and access to treatment is critical.

What are the trends?

In a recent study conducted annually by the University of Michigan and supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Monitoring the Future), researchers asked American teens across the country about their current and past drug use and their attitudes toward drug use. While this years report shows areas of improvement, findings indicate an attitudinal shift in and about their use of marijuana.

The Good News

The good news is that teens report a 5-year decline in the abuse of prescription opioids, alcohol, and cigarettes. It is encouraging to see these statistics, as well as the continued low levels of abuse of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.

Findings that Cause Concern

     Cigarettes Down Smoking Up

Surprisingly, while smoking cigarettes amongst teens is at a an all time low, other forms of smoking tobacco are becoming popular. The use of e-cigarettes, hookah water pipes and small cigars are all on the rise. While the last five decades represents a fight to change the perception that smoking is “cool” but actually causes illness and premature death has been successful. More recent add campaign marketing efforts are targeted at changing the perception of teens on these new forms of smoking. Marketing efforts are glamorizing the use of e-cigarettes, making smoking look sexy and rebellious, which are the very elements that research has shown will attract kids to smoking.

     Marijuana Rediscovered

However, one of the most disturbing trends in this years survey indicates that teens’ attitudes toward marijuana use is changing. Fewer teens think regular marijuana users risk harming themselves (physically or in other ways). Alarmingly, the reported perception of teens that regular marijuana use may be dangerous is the lowest it has been since 1978. Not surprisingly, when perception of risk for use goes down, use correspondingly goes up.

     Why is the Use and Attitudes About Marijuana on the Rise?

As previously indicated, research over the last 3 decades demonstrates that fluctuating perception of marijuana’s risks by teens has exactly mirrored how much they have used the drug. Considering the recent changes in legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado, the public conversation about marijuana’s purported therapeutic benefits is likely contributing to teens impression that marijuana is not harmful.

Although research in animals and humans points to significant cognitive impairment and negative impacts on brain development and various measures of life satisfaction, success, and achievement when marijuana is used heavily, especially during adolescence. Once the belief is formulated that legalization implies acceptance and the perception that marijuana is not harmful, it becomes harder for teens to accept the harmful effects we do know about marijuana.

“We should be extremely concerned that 12 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana,” said NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., she adds: “The children whose experimentation leads to regular use are setting themselves up for declines in IQ and diminished ability for success in life.”

“These increases in marijuana use over the past few years are a serious setback in our nation’s efforts to raise a healthy generation of young people,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy. “Teens deserve to grow up in an environment where they are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and drug use never factors into that equation. Today’s news demands that all of us recommit to bolstering the vital role prevention and involved parenting play in keeping young people safe, strong, and ready to succeed.”

Where Do Teens Get the Marijuana?

In 2012, the survey added questions about where students get marijuana. The survey findings indicated that by looking at the last two years combined, 34 percent of marijuana-using 12th-graders living in states with medical marijuana laws say that one of the ways they obtain the drug is through someone else’s medical marijuana prescription. In addition, more than 6 percent say they get it with their own prescription. The team of investigators who conducted the survey will continue to explore the link between state laws and marijuana’s accessibility to teens.

Two Important Considerations About the Marijuana Trend


The 2013 survey indicates that one of the two important considerations that the survey itself does not address is that the survey does not take into account the rising potency of marijuana from year to year. In 1990, marijuana in the United States averaged 3.35 percent THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in the marijuana plant); today’s average street potency is well over four times that, at almost 15 percent.

Although it is possible that users today may moderate their THC intake by smoking less on a given occasion, it is likely the MTF use trends don’t fully reflect the magnitude of the impact marijuana may be having on the brains of today’s teenagers. The NIDA report sites the example, the participants in the large-scale New Zealand Study, published last year who had lost an average of 8 IQ points after using marijuana heavily as teenagers would have turned 18 in 1990 or 1991—when marijuana potency in New Zealand was comparable to what it was in the U.S. at the time (between 1 and 5 percent). Would they have lost more IQ points had marijuana been more potent? Only further research can answer that question.

     Study Only Includes Those In School

The second consideration is that the survey only includes adolescents who are in school. Although the nationwide graduation rate is climbing, fully a quarter of the class of 2010 did not finish high school, and heavy marijuana use is linked to school dropout. The 6.5 percent of 12th graders who reported that they use marijuana daily is thus likely to be less than the percentage of all American 17- and 18-year-olds using marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis.


Monitoring the Future Survey provides critical information in the trends of American teens attitudes and use of drugs. These results provide crucial information about where to concentrate our preventive efforts to educate teens specifically about the effects of the most popular drugs. The report underscores that while America’s teens do seem to be hearing some of our messages—for instance, that synthetic marijuana posses significant risks—we clearly need to do more to impress upon them that the harms of marijuana, although less immediate and less obvious than those of some other drugs, are no less serious. Among others, it can negatively affect a person’s ability to learn and, in turn, negatively impact their academic performance. 

Site References
1. NIDA Supported Monitoring the Future
2. NIDA Monitoring the Future