Study: COVID Didn’t Deter Teen Substance Use

teen drug use

Plus: A MAT possibility for alcoholism and a connection between marijuana and suicide risks

By William Wagner

The kids weren’t alright during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study shows. Despite a seeming lack of access to weed and alcohol, adolescent use of those substances remained at pre-pandemic levels.

In this week’s “From the Journals,” we also spotlight the potential of the medications varenicline and naltrexone to curb excessive drinking, and a possible connection between marijuana and suicidality among young adults.

From Drug and Alcohol Dependence:
Adolescent Weed, Alcohol Use Kept Rolling During Pandemic

A study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and led by researchers from the University of Michigan found that the COVID-19 pandemic had virtually no effect on adolescent drinking and marijuana consumption, even though availability was perceived to be much more limited. To draw their conclusions, the researchers analyzed data from Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys of 12th-graders from one month before social-distancing policies were put in place in spring 2020 and from the ensuing summer.

It is striking that despite this monumental shift [due to COVID] and teens’ perceived decreases in availability of marijuana and alcohol, usage rates held steady for these substances.”—Nora Volkow, NIDA

The findings put a dent in the theory that restricted access means less substance use. “Last year brought dramatic changes to adolescents’ lives, as many teens remained home with parents and other family members full-time,” NIDA director Nora Volkow, M.D., said upon the publication of the study. “It is striking that despite this monumental shift and teens’ perceived decreases in availability of marijuana and alcohol, usage rates held steady for these substances. This indicates that teens were able to obtain them despite barriers caused by the pandemic and despite not being of age to legally purchase them.”

From the American Journal of Psychiatry:
A Potential MAT for Drinking

Scientists at UCLA believe medication-assisted treatment (MAT) can be of value in conquering two of America’s most persistent health problems: tobacco and alcohol addiction. The combination of varenicline for smoking and naltrexone for drinking showed promise in treating both afflictions in a clinical trial comprising 165 people. Varenicline is already used for smoking cessation under the brand name Chantix, and it, along with naltrexone, might also help heavy drinkers to at least cut back on their consumption. The UCLA research team writes in the American Journal of Psychiatry that “smoking cessation and drinking reduction can be concomitantly targeted with pharmacotherapy and that while varenicline alone may be sufficient as a smoking cessation aid in heavy-drinking smokers, the combination of varenicline and naltrexone may confer benefits with regard to drinking outcomes, particularly during the 12-week period of active medication treatment.”

A study undertaken by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has identified a possible connection between marijuana and suicidality among young adults (ages 18 to 34). After studying data from more than 280,000 young adults in the U.S., the researchers determined that cannabis use makes this population particularly vulnerable to thoughts of suicide, suicide plans and suicide attempts. Women, according to the findings, are at greater risk than men. The authors state on JAMA Network that their work has significant implications because “[d]uring the past decade, cannabis use among U.S. adults has increased markedly, with a parallel increase in suicidality (ideation, plan, attempt, and death). However, associations between cannabis use and suicidality among young adults are poorly understood.” The researchers’ ultimate goal is to create intervention techniques that are more targeted.

Photo: Tolga Ahmetler