Monitoring the Future: Adolescent Drug Use Fell Sharply in 2021

Monitoring the Future Survey

The annual study yielded surprising results, given the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic

By William Wagner

The kids are alright, even in the face of a blistering pandemic that won’t relent.

According to results from the annual National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey released on Dec. 15, drug use among U.S. adolescents declined dramatically in 2021. Considering previous studies showing that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to mood disorders and increased drug and alcohol use among large swaths of the population, it’s somewhat of a surprise that adolescents—eighth, 10th and 12th graders in the context of the MTF survey—have been relatively unscathed.

Moving forward, it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use—whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure or other factors—and harness them to inform future prevention efforts.”

—Nora Volkow, director of NIDA

“We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period [since the MTF survey began in 1975],” Nora Volkow, MD, director of NIDA, said. “These data are unprecedented and highlight one unexpected potential consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused seismic shifts in the day-to-day lives of adolescents. Moving forward, it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use—whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure or other factors—and harness them to inform future prevention efforts.”

Inside the 2021 Monitoring the Future Survey

The MTF survey, conducted by the University of Michigan, measures attitudes toward the use of legal and illicit drugs. For the 2021 edition, researchers gathered 32,260 surveys between February and June from students in 319 public and private schools. Among the findings:

Marijuana use declined considerably across the board.

  • Eighth graders: 7.1% reported using marijuana in the past year, compared with 11.4% in 2020
  • 10th graders: 17.3% in the past year, compared with 28.0% in 2020
  • 12th graders: 30.5% in the past year, compared with 35.2% in 2020
Vaping decreased substantially.

Nicotine vaping also was down in all three categories.

  • Eighth graders: 12.1% reported vaping nicotine in the past year, compared with 16.6% in 2020
  • 10th graders: 19.5% in the past year, compared with 30.7% in 2020
  • 12th graders: 26.6% in the past year, compared with 34.5% in 2020

Use of any illicit drug other than marijuana was cut nearly in half:

  • Eighth graders: 4.6% reported using any illicit drug other than marijuana in the past year, compared with 7.7% in 2020
  • 10th graders: 5.1% in the past year, compared with 8.6% in 2020
  • 12th graders: 7.2% in the past year, compared to 11.4% in 2020

The report isn’t entirely rosy: While alcohol use decreased among 10th and 12th graders, it remained steady among eighth graders. Overall, however, there is reason for optimism.

“In addition to looking at these significant one-year declines in substance use among young people, the real benefit of the Monitoring the Future survey is our unique ability to track changes over time, and over the course of history,” said Richard A. Miech, PhD., the survey’s team lead. “We knew that this year’s data would illuminate how the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted substance use among young people, and in the coming years, we will find out whether those impacts are long-lasting as we continue tracking the drug use patterns of these unique cohorts of adolescents.”

Top photo: Matheus Ferraro; bottom photo: Nery Zarate

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