Young People and Drugs

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The Drug Policy Alliance has a series of resources for educators and parents, including a drug education curriculum and tips for talking to teens about drugs.

Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse has been working since the early 1980s to provide honest, effective drug education for young people.

Page last updated June 10, 2020 by Doug McVay, Editor/Senior Policy Analyst.

1. Juvenile Injustice: Children In The Criminal Justice System

"Too many children—particularly children in poverty; children of color; children with disabilities; children with mental health and substance abuse challenges; children subjected to neglect, abuse and/or other violence; children in foster care and LGBTQ children—are pushed out of their schools and homes into the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice systems. While the number of children arrested and incarcerated has declined over the past decade largely due to positive changes in policy and practice, America’s children continue to be criminalized at alarming rates.

"• In 2018, 728,280 children were arrested in the U.S. (see Table 33). A child or teen was arrested every 43 seconds despite a 63 percent reduction in child arrests between 2009 and 2018.

"• Although the number of children in the juvenile justice system has been cut in half since 2007, 43,580 children and youth were held in residential placement on a given night in 2017. Nearly 2 in 3 were placed in the most restrictive facilities.2

"• Another 935 children were incarcerated in adult prisons on any given night in 2017—down from 2,283 in 2007 (see Table 35). An estimated 76,000 children are prosecuted, sentenced or incarcerated as adults annually.3

"• While many states have made legislative changes to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, five states still automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults (Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin) and all states allow children charged with certain offenses to be prosecuted in adult courts.4"

"The State of America's Children 2020," Children's Defense Fund. Washington, DC: 2020.
https://www.childrensdefense.o...
https://www.childrensdefense.o...

2. Juvenile Injustice: Racism and Bigotry in the Juvenile Criminal Justice System

"• Although 62 percent of children arrested in the U.S. were white, children of color were nearly two times more likely to be arrested than white children.5 Black children were two and a half times more likely.6

"• In 2017, the residential placement rate for children of color was more than two times that for white children nationwide and more than four times that for white children in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Black children were committed or detained at nearly five times the rate of white children.7

"• Two-thirds (67 percent) of children in the juvenile justice system were children of color: 41 percent were Black and 21 percent were Hispanic (see Table 34).

"• Children of color are also disproportionately transferred to the adult criminal justice system, where they are tried and prosecuted as adults. In 2017, Black youth represented 54 percent of youth prosecuted in adult criminal court but only 15 percent of the total youth population.8 Black youth are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence; American Indian/Alaska Native youth are almost two times more likely and Hispanic youth are 40 percent more likely.9"

"The State of America's Children 2020," Children's Defense Fund. Washington, DC: 2020.
https://www.childrensdefense.o...
https://www.childrensdefense.o...

3. Juvenile Injustice: Boys, Youth With Disabilities, and LGBTQ Youth

"Boys, youth with disabilities and LGBTQ youth also come into disproportionate contact with juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

"• In 2017, the residential placement rate for boys was more than five times that for girls. Eighty-five percent of children in residential placement were male.10

"• At least 1 in 3 youth in the juvenile justice system has a disability qualifying them for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—nearly four times the rate of youth in public schools. Less than half receive special education services while in custody.11

"• The percent of LGBTQ children in the juvenile justice system (20 percent) is more than two times that of LGBTQ youth in the general population (7-9 percent); 85 percent are children of color.12"

"The State of America's Children 2020," Children's Defense Fund. Washington, DC: 2020.
https://www.childrensdefense.o...
https://www.childrensdefense.o...

4. Juvenile Injustice: Trauma and Risk of Abuse

"Once incarcerated, children are at risk of physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, suicide and other harms, including inadequate educational instruction. The use of solitary confinement further deprives them of social interaction, mental stimulation and key services during a critical time of adolescent brain development. Risks are heightened for children in the adult criminal justice system, which is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and treatment. Children in adult jails are more likely to suffer permanent trauma and are five times more likely to die by suicide than children held in juvenile detention centers.13

"We have better choices than incarceration. Diversion, treatment, after school and family support programs support children, keep communities safe and save taxpayer dollars."

"The State of America's Children 2020," Children's Defense Fund. Washington, DC: 2020.
https://www.childrensdefense.o...
https://www.childrensdefense.o...

5. Arrests of Young People on Marijuana Charges in Colorado Since Legalization

"The number of juvenile marijuana arrests decreased 16%, from 3,168 in 2012 to 2,655 in 2017. The rate of juvenile marijuana arrests per 100,000 decreased from 583 in 2012 to 453 in 2017 (‐22%).

"The number of White juvenile arrests decreased from 2,146 in 2012 to 1,703 in 2017 (‐21%).

"The number of Hispanic juvenile arrests decreased from 767 in 2012 to 733 in 2017 (‐4%).

"The number of Black juvenile arrests decreased from 202 in 2012 to 172 in 2017 (‐15%)."

Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: A Report Pursuant to Senate Bill 13-283. Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice, Office of Research and Statistics. October 2018, p. 5.
https://www.colorado.gov/pacif...
http://cdpsdocs.state.co.us/or...

6. Marijuana Use by Young People in Washington State Following Legalization

"More schools and students are captured in the HYS [Washington Healthy Youth Survey] than MTF [Monitoring The Future Survey] (Table). The MTF included fewer low–socioeconomic status and nonwhite youth in the prelegalization vs postlegalization period.

"Estimates from the MTF show statistically nonsignificant change in the prevalence of cannabis use for 8th graders (from 6.2% [95% CI, 4.4%-8.7%] to 8.2% [95% CI, 6.3%-10.7%];P = .16), and a significant increase for 10th graders (from 16.2% [95% CI, 14.0%-18.6%] to 20.3% [95% CI, 16.9%-24.1%]; P = .02). In contrast, the HYS shows statistically significant declines in prevalence from 2010-2012 to 2014-2016 among both 8th graders (from 9.8% [95% CI, 9.1%-10.5%] to 7.3% [95% CI, 6.6%-8.0%]; P < .001) and 10th graders (from 19.8% [95%CI, 18.6%-21.0%] to 17.8% [95%CI, 16.7%-18.9%]; P = .01). Neither MTF nor HYS analysis showed changes among 12th graders (Figure). Findings from HYS comparisons to 2014 alone were of less magnitude but similar direction."

Dilley JA, Richardson SM, Kilmer B, Pacula RL, Segawa MB, Cerdá M. Prevalence of Cannabis Use in Youths After Legalization in Washington State. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(2):192–193. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.4458
https://jamanetwork.com/journa...

7. Use of Marijuana by Young People in Colorado Since Legalization

"Data on youth marijuana use was available from two sources. The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS), with 47,146 high school and 6,704 middle school students responding in 2017, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), with about 512 respondents in 2015/16.

"HKCS results indicate no significant change in past 30‐day use of marijuana between 2013 (19.7%) and 2017 (19.4%). Also, in 2017, the use rates were not different from the national 30‐day use rates reported by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.2 In 2017, 19.4% of Colorado high school students reported using marijuana in the past 30‐days compared to 19.8% of high school students nationally that reported this behavior.

"The 2017 HKCS found that marijuana use increases by grade level, with 11.0% of 9th graders, 17.7% of 10th graders, 23.7% of 11th graders, and 25.7% of 12th reporting use in the past 30‐days.

"The 2015/16 NSDUH, with many fewer respondents compared to HKCS, indicated a gradual increase in youth use from 2006/07 (9.1%) to 2013/14 (12.6%); however, the last two years showed decreased use, with 9.1% reporting use in 2015/16. The NSDUH showed that youth use of marijuana in Colorado (9.1%) was above the national average (6.8%)."

Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: A Report Pursuant to Senate Bill 13-283. Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice, Office of Research and Statistics. October 2018, p. 5.
https://www.colorado.gov/pacif...
http://cdpsdocs.state.co.us/or...

8. Use of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs by Young People

"Teen users are at significantly higher risk of developing an addictive disorder compared to adults, and the earlier they began using, the higher their risk. Nine out of 10 people who meet the clinical criteria for substance use disorders involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs began smoking, drinking or using other drugs before they turned 18. People who begin using any addictive substance before age 15 are six and a half times as likely to develop a substance use disorder as those who delay use until age 21 or older (28.1 percent vs. 4.3 percent)."

"Adolescent Substance Abuse: America's #1 Public Health Problem," National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, June 2011, p. 2.
http://www.casacolumbia.org/ad...

9. Lifetime Marijuana Use Among Students in the US, by Race and Gender

"Nationwide, 35.6% of students had used marijuana (also called grass, pot, or weed) one or more times during their life (Supplementary Table 106). The prevalence of having ever used marijuana was higher among black (42.8%) and Hispanic (42.4%) than white (32.0%) students, higher among black female (44.9%) and Hispanic female (42.7%) than white female (32.1%) students, and higher among black male (40.5%) and Hispanic male (42.1%) than white male (31.7%) students. The prevalence of having ever used marijuana was higher among 10th-grade (33.3%), 11th-grade (41.4%), and 12th-grade (45.8%) than 9th-grade (23.8%) students; higher among 11th-grade (41.4%) and 12th grade (45.8%) than 10th-grade (33.3%) students; higher among 12th-grade (45.8%) than 11th-grade (41.4%) students; higher among 10th-grade female (33.6%), 11th-grade female (42.3%), and 12th-grade female (45.3%) than 9th-grade female (24.1%) students; higher among 11th-grade female (42.3%) and 12th-grade female (45.3%) than 10th-grade female (33.6%) students; higher among 10th-grade male (33.1%), 11th-grade male (40.3%), and 12th-grade male (46.2%) than 9th-grade male (23.4%) students; higher among 11th-grade male (40.3%) and 12th-grade male (46.2%) than 10th-grade male (33.1%) students; and higher among 12th-grade male (46.2%) than 11th-grade male (40.3%) students.

"Analyses based on the question ascertaining sexual identity indicated that nationwide, 35.2% of heterosexual students; 50.4% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students; and 28.8% of not sure students had ever used marijuana (Supplementary Table 106). The prevalence of having ever used marijuana was higher among heterosexual (35.2%) and gay, lesbian, and bisexual (50.4%) than not sure (28.8%) students and higher among gay, lesbian, and bisexual (50.4%) than heterosexual (35.2%) students. Among female students, the prevalence was higher among lesbian and bisexual (54.3%) than heterosexual (34.7%) and not sure (29.9%) students. Among male students, the prevalence was higher among heterosexual (35.7%) and gay and bisexual (38.5%) than not sure (24.9%) students. The prevalence also was higher among lesbian and bisexual female (54.3%) than gay and bisexual male (38.5%) students."

Laura Kann, PhD; Tim McManus, MS; William A. Harris, MM; et al. "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2017," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control, June 15, 2018), Vol. 67, No. 8.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/p...
https://www.cdc.gov/...

10. Personal Disapproval of Drug Use Among 12th Graders in the US

"• The vast majority of 12th graders disapprove of regular use of any of the illicit drugs (see Table 8-6). Among 12th graders in 2017, 65% disapprove (including strongly disapprove) of regular marijuana use and between 92% and 96% disapprove of regular use of each of the other illicit drugs.

"• For each of the drugs included in this set of questions, fewer respondents indicate disapproval of experimental or occasional use than of regular use. However, the differences are not great for the use of illicit drugs other than marijuana, because nearly all 12th graders disapprove of even experimenting with them. For example, the proportions disapproving of experimental use are 94% for heroin; 88% for cocaine; 90% for crack; 86% for sedatives (barbiturates); 86% for cocaine powder; 78% for LSD; and 85% for ecstasy (MDMA). The extent of disapproval of illicit drug use by peers is no doubt underestimated by adolescents and, as we have written for some time, the extent of disapproval that actually does exist could be widely publicized and provide the basis for some potentially powerful prevention messages in the form of normative education.14

"• For marijuana, disapproval by 12th graders varies substantially for different usage levels, although not as much as it has in the past. Four out of ten of all seniors (39%) disapprove of even trying marijuana once or twice, about half (47%) disapprove of its occasional use, and two of three (65%) disapprove of regular use. Looked at another way, just over one third of 12th graders (35%) say they don’t disapprove of regular marijuana use.

"• Smoking a pack (or more) of cigarettes per day now meets with disapproval by nearly nine out of ten (87%) 12th grade students—a level comparable to the level of disapproval for many of the illicit drugs and actually higher than disapproval of regular marijuana use.

"• Having one or two drinks nearly every day meets with the disapproval of 71% of 12th graders. Curiously, almost the same percentage of 12th graders (73%) disapprove of weekend binge drinking (five or more drinks once or twice each weekend), despite the fact that twice as many of them see a great risk in weekend binge drinking (46%) than in having one or two drinks nearly every day (22%).

"One explanation for these seemingly anomalous findings may be that a greater proportion of this age group are themselves (and have friends who are) weekend binge drinkers rather than moderate daily drinkers. Therefore, some of their disapproval attitudes may be consistent with their own behavior, even though such attitudes are somewhat inconsistent with their beliefs about possible consequences. Perhaps the ubiquitous advertising of alcohol use in partying situations has also managed to increase social acceptability. In any case, this divergence between the perceived risk associated with the two behaviors and the corresponding levels of disapproval helps to illustrate the point that, while perceived risk may influence disapproval (as we have consistently hypothesized), other factors also play a role."

Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., & Patrick, M. E. (2018). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2017: Volume I, Secondary school students. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan. Available at
http://monitoringthefuture.org...
http://monitoringthefuture.org...

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