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Is marijuana use really ‘soaring’ among young people?

Updated: Sep 22

By Bruce Barcott


When does good health news magically turn into a worrisome trend? When cannabis is involved, of course.


This past week we were treated to a master class in trend creation and data twisting by NIDA Director Nora Volkow.The Haymaker is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column about cannabis politics and culture.


NIDA is the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the federal agency that retains a stranglehold on all cannabis research in the US.


On Aug. 21, Volkow’s agency issued a press release claiming that marijuana and hallucinogen use among young adults reached an all-time high last year.


The following day’s New York Times gave NIDA’s claim a courtesy shine. Times health reporter Andrew Jacobs basically rewrote the press release and the copy desk topped it with this header: “Use of Marijuana and Psychedelics Is Soaring Among Young Adults, Study Finds.”


NIDA Director Nora Volkow told Jacobs she found the results “very concerning.”


“What they tell us is that the problem of substance abuse among young people has gotten worse in this country,” she said, “and that the pandemic, with all its mental stressors and turmoil, has likely contributed to the rise.”


The NIDA press release included this alarming visual:


The whole thing struck me as odd. Other studies have seen a sharp drop in marijuana use among teenagers in 2020 and 2021—most likely due to pandemic stay-at-home orders that limited the opportunities for America’s teens to obtain and use weed. (I’ll leave the hallucinogen data alone for now.)


Intrigued, I took a dive into the data behind NIDA’s claim. And found—quelle surprise—a giant turd at the bottom of the pond.


Not new, not soaring, not buying it

Last week’s NIDA claim and Times headline didn’t come from a new study, it turns out. They came from the latest Monitoring the Future report, which was published last December. Monitoring the Future is a national survey of drug use that the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has conducted annually since 1975. NIDA and its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) help fund the study.


Eight months ago, when that study was actually new, NIDA issued a press release heralding the survey’s finding that teen drug use, including teen marijuana use, dropped significantly in 2021. “We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period,” Nora Volkow said at the time.


The good news about teen marijuana use isn’t limited to the pandemic era. Over the past few years, as legalization has spread to 19 states, studies have failed to find a related rise in teen use. At an anti-drug conference in January, Volkow herself said she’s been surprised to see years of data that show “the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers have been stable despite the legalization in many states.”


So what changed between then and now? Nothing—except, perhaps, NIDA’s need to keep the nation alarmed about cannabis legalization as election season approaches.

How do you do that when the data undermines your talking point? You rearrange the data.


What the data actually show

If you go into the Monitoring the Future data and separate the 18-to-20 year-olds from the 21-to-30 year-olds, you’ll find a remarkable story. (I’m including 18-year-olds because the data is there. I don’t know why NIDA chose not to use it.)


Over the past decade, as adult-use legalization has taken hold for nearly half the American population, the University of Michigan researchers found the percentage of 18-to-20 year-olds who tried marijuana at least once in the past year has remained almost unchanged: 35.4% in 2011, and 35.0% in 2021.


Meanwhile, the percentage of 21-to-30 year-olds (adults of legal age) trying marijuana increased from 28% to 43%.

Here’s what that looks like, using data from the same Monitoring the Future report:


Past year marijuana use: Underage vs. Legal Adult

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