Teenage Wasteland


Study reveals surprises on teenage drug use.

Despite what television shows and prison incarceration records would have you believe, a new analysis of teenage drug use finds greater problems among whites, Native Americans, and Hispanics than among Asian and African-American teens.

The study also found that alcohol trails both marijuana and stimulants as the drug most often used by teens. "I think it will be surprising to some people what the numbers show," says Dan G. Blazer, J.P. Gibbons Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study.

Native American teens were found to have the highest prevalence of alcohol use (37 percent), followed by whites (35 percent) and Hispanics (32 percent). By contrast, 25 percent of African-American and 19 percent of Asian teens reported using alcohol in the previous year.

Drug use followed a similar pattern, with the highest rate of use reported among Native American teens (31 percent), children of multiple ethnicities (23 percent), and whites (20 percent). African-American and Hispanic youths had rates of about 18 percent, while Asians had the lowest rate at 12 percent.

Blazer says the group analyzed data collected between 2005 and 2008 from confidential national surveys of 72,561 adolescents ages twelve to seventeen. Of those, 37 percent said they had used alcohol or drugs in the past year; 8 percent met the criteria for a substanceuse disorder, meaning their use had escalated, interfered with other activities, caused legal problems, or damaged relationships.

"It's important to recognize that among teens using these substances, there's between a 10 percent and 26 percent chance of having a substance-use disorder," says Blazer.

Use of heroin, while relatively rare among teens in the survey, posed the highest likelihood of leading to addiction or abuse. However, the survey also notes a disturbing pattern of dependency with marijuana, far more widely used by teens. Nearly 26 percent of teens who used marijuana had abuse or dependency problems. Teens who said they used marijuana reported taking the drug an average of seventy-nine days in the past year. Stimulants had the second-highest use, at an average of forty-seven days among users, followed by opioids at about thirty-nine days, and alcohol at nearly thirty-six days. Prescription opioids such as oxycodone are now more popular than inhalants as a source for getting high, according to the study.

"Substance-abuse problems are very difficult to treat when you get into adulthood. If you really want to reverse the abuse and dependence on these drugs, what you need to do is start early, and focus on trying to get these young people into treatment or catch them earlier and stop them from even starting," says Blazer.

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