National Study: 1 in 9 High School Seniors Abusing Synthetic Marijuana

The good news: teenage drinking and cigarette smoking in America is at a historic low. The bad news: marijuana use and prescription drug abuse subsist at high rates, and there's a new substance to be on the lookout for-synthetic marijuana.

The good news: teenage drinking and cigarette smoking in America is at a historic low. The bad news: marijuana use and prescription drug abuse subsist at high rates, and there’s a new substance to be on the lookout for—synthetic marijuana.

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey assessed the prevalence of synthetic marijuana (also known as Spice or K2) for the first time in US teenagers. They found that over 11% of 12th graders admitted to using the synthetic drug over the last year.

For approximately four decades, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey has been following the drug, alcohol, and cigarette habits of roughly 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students on an annual basis.

Gil Kerlikoeske, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), was alarmed by the rise in this percentage. "One in nine 12th graders in America have used synthetic marijuana in the last year. Spice and K2 now rank as the second most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors, second only to marijuana," reported Kerlikowske. "Make no mistake. These drugs are dangerous and can cause serious harm. Poison control center data across America have shown as substantial rise in the number of calls from victims suffering serious consequences from these synthetic drugs."

The ONDCP stated that poison control centers across the nation have received nearly 6,000 calls thus far this year—already double last year's total number.

Kerlikowske reported that synthetic marijuana was being sold legally as an alternative to marijuana in convenience stores across the country until a few months ago, when the sale of chemicals used to make the substance was banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"We must be clear with our young people," said Kerlikowske. "Smoked marijuana is not an FDA approved medicine and the National Institute of Health has long documented the harms of marijuana use. Science shows it is addictive. Research shows it impairs driving. Studies show it can degrade academic performance."

The ONDCP is compiling a federal response to Spice/K2 aimed at working with public health agencies to share data, and a movement has been started to get Congress to pass new laws that will ban these drugs.

Despite this rise in synthetic marijuana use, the survey has shown that, over a number of years, a significant drop in alcohol and cigarette use has occurred gradually. Approximately 10% of 12th graders reported that they smoke every day, a considerable decrease from the 24.6% in 1997, and only 2.4% of 8th graders admitted to smoking daily.

Teen smoking reached its peak in the years 1996 and1997, but it has since fallen considerably, with a decrease of 71% in 8th graders, 61% in 10th graders, and 49% in seniors. This year, only 63.5% of 12th-graders admitted to drinking alcohol in comparison to the 75% of 12th-graders in 1997. Further, only 27% of eighth-graders surveyed drank alcohol in comparison to the roughly 47% in 1994. Overall, rates of binge drinking have decreased in the last five years in high school teens.

"This is very good news for the health and longevity of these young people," said Lloyd Johnston, research scientist at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of the study. "Even a reduction of only one percentage point can translate into thousands of premature deaths being prevented."

The most notable rising factor in teen substance use is marijuana. Over 36% of 12th-graders reported using the drug over the past year, and almost 7% admitted to using the substance daily. According to researchers, this increase is connected to the belief that the drug is not harmful.

Prescription drug trends have reached somewhat of a plateau—Vicodin use has decreased in sophomores but has remained at a constant high level among seniors, and OxyContin has remained steady for the last five years in high school teens.

An increase was seen, however, in amphetamine use in high school seniors. There was no perceivable change in the use of ADHD medications—primarily Adderall and Ritalin—over the last year, but there was a substantial decline in the number of 8th graders abusing over-the-counter cough medications.

Volkow says the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the study, is launching an updated prescription drug section on their teen website in an effort to educate teenagers about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

"Teens can go to our PEERx pages to find interactive videos and other tools that help them make healthy decisions and understand the risks of abusing prescription drugs," said Volkow.