Declines in adolescent use of illicit drugs reported in 2021 were the largest and most sweeping recorded in the past 46 years, according to the Monitoring the Future study.
A research team of professors at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has conducted annual, nationally representative surveys of students in grades eight, 10 and 12 since 1975. The survey is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The percentage of youth who had ever used any illicit drug other than marijuana decreased by more than 25 percent in 2021. Specifically, in 12th grade this percentage was 27 percent smaller in comparison to the previous year, in 10th grade the decline was 31 percent, and in eighth grade the drop was 30 percent.
Put in context, in 12th grade this one-year decline is three times larger than the previous record (a 9 percent drop in 2014), in 10th grade it is more than twice as large as the previous record (a 13 percent decrease in 2008), and in eighth grade it is 50 percent larger than the previous record (a 19 percent decline in 2002).
In 2021, the percentage of students who used an illicit drug other than marijuana in their lifetime was 13 percent in 12th grade and 9 percent in both eighth and 10th grades.
Significant declines in use took place across a wide range of drugs, including cocaine, hallucinogens and nonmedical use of amphetamines, tranquilizers and prescription opioids.
“These declines are an unintended consequence of the pandemic,” said Richard Miech, principal investigator of the study and a research professor at ISR. “Among the many disruptions adolescents have experienced as a result of the pandemic are disruptions in their ability to get drugs, disruptions in their ability to use drugs outside of parental supervision, and disruptions in peer groups that encourage drug use.
“As a result, this year, it appears that a sizable portion of adolescents have not used drugs who otherwise may have done so.”
He said it is possible that the delayed onset of drug use will lower these adolescents’ levels of drug use for the rest of their lives, or it’s also possible the declines will be fleeting, and drug use may surge once adolescents are free of the constraints imposed by the pandemic.
Declines also took place among the three most commonly used drugs in adolescence: marijuana, alcohol and vaped nicotine. In 2021, the proportion who had ever used marijuana (which is not legal for youth younger than 21) was down by 12 percent in 12th grade compared with the previous year, falling to 39 percent. In 10th grade, the proportion dropped 34 percent from the prior year’s level, to 22 percent. In eighth grade, the decline was 31 percent, down to 10 percent.
In 2021, the proportion who had ever used alcohol (more than just a few sips) in 12th grade decreased by 12 percent from the previous year, falling to 54 percent; in 10th grade, the proportion dropped by one-fourth, to 35 percent; and in eighth grade, it fell by 15 percent, down to 22 percent.
The proportion of 12th-graders in 2021 who had ever vaped nicotine was 13 percent smaller in comparison to the previous year, down to 39 percent, and in both 10th grade and eighth grade, the decline was 27 percent, falling to 28 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
With declines in the student population who had ever used drugs also came declines in the proportion who had used them in the last 12 months and in the last 30 days.
Changes in drug use and mental health since the pandemic began
Monitoring the Future also asked students how their drug use had changed since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020. Students who reported using a drug in the past 12 months in 2021 were asked if their use of it had decreased, stayed the same or increased since the pandemic began.
Teens who had vaped nicotine in the past 12 months reported that their levels of use had not changed since the start of the pandemic, a finding present in eighth, 10th and 12th grade. This suggests that cessation did not play a large role in the substantial, overall declines in past 12-month nicotine vaping in 2021, Miech said. Instead, the declines likely stem from fewer initiates to nicotine vaping in 2021, as indicated by the large declines in lifetime use.
Students who had smoked or vaped marijuana in the past 12 months reported that their levels of use since the start of the pandemic had not changed in eighth grade, and actually went up slightly in 10th and 12th grade. Miech said this indicates that cessation did not play a large role in the substantial, overall declines in past 12-month marijuana use in 2021. The decreases, instead, are likely the result of fewer initiates to marijuana smoking and vaping in 2021, as evidenced by the large declines in lifetime use.
Students reported a drop in use of other drugs, among those who had used them in the past 12 months. These drugs include alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana edibles and nonmedical use of opioids, sedatives, tranquilizers and amphetamines. The results suggest that both cessation and decreased initiation contributed to the 2021 declines in use of these drugs.
Teens also reported increased mental health issues since the start of the pandemic.
In 2021, all students were asked if they experienced increases or decreases in “feeling anxious,” “feeling angry,” “feeling annoyed or irritable,” “feeling bored,” “feeling sad,” “feeling lonely,” “feeling depressed,” “feeling worried,” “difficulties with sleeping,” “difficulties being interested in normal activities” and “difficulties concentrating.”
As a whole, students reported significant increases for each of these mental health measures, in all three grades. These results point to pandemic-related mental health issues among adolescents that require consideration by parents, schools and all people who work with adolescents, Miech said.
In addition, the findings raise the possibility that the pandemic may leave a lasting impact on the mental health of today’s adolescents, even after the pandemic recedes.