Drug use down, but teens still abuse painkillers

Times Staff Writer

Although fewer young people are using marijuana and other illegal drugs, the percentage of teenagers abusing prescription painkillers remains alarmingly high, according to a national teen drug use survey released Tuesday at the White House.

The study, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that overall illicit drug use among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders has continued its gradual decline, largely because of modest decreases in the use of marijuana and methamphetamines. But trends in teenage drinking and use of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin have remained relatively steady, and young people continue to abuse such prescription drugs as OxyContin and Vicodin.

“Despite all of the successes of reduction of all of the illicit substances, the use of prescription medications has not budged,” said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which financed the survey. “It’s very, very high.”

More than 15% of 12th-graders reported misusing a prescription drug within the last year, the survey found. One in 10 teens reported using Vicodin for nonmedical purposes within the last year, and use of OxyContin has increased about 30% since 2002.


John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said teenagers largely understand that so-called street drugs such as marijuana and cocaine are dangerous. But, he said, they assume that pharmaceutical drugs can provide a safer high because they come from the medical establishment.

“These are certainly dangerous, mostly synthetic opiates that are the most widely abused,” Walters said. “They are not only a source of addiction, but they . . . can be a source of seizure, even death, when taken in quantities.”

The danger is compounded by the drugs’ easy accessibility. Waters said that, based on other surveys, 71% of young people have reported their sources of supply are their parents’ or friends’ medicine cabinets.

The “Monitoring the Future” survey is conducted annually; this year it was given to a random national sample of 48,025 students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades in 403 public and private schools.


In releasing the figures, President Bush said the results suggest his administration has made progress in achieving the goal, set in 2002, to cut drug use among young people by 25% over a five-year period. Bush said that in addition to an overall drop of 24% in illicit drug use since 2001, marijuana use has fallen by 25%, steroid use by a third and methamphetamine use by 64% over the same period.

An estimated 860,000 fewer children are using drugs now than in 2001, Bush said.

“Communities are safer, families are stronger, and more children have the hope of a healthy and happy life,” he said.

But despite this gradual downward trend, teenagers’ use of cocaine and heroin has remained steady over the same period. In 2001 and 2007, the same percentage of 12th graders reported using heroin during the previous year. Cocaine use among 12th-graders who used the drug over the last year slightly increased, from 4.8% in 2001 to 5.2% in 2007.


“They’re claiming a great success on the war on drugs,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates alternatives to punitive drug policies. “But most of the decline in teen drug use has been a result of fewer teens using marijuana, the least dangerous illegal drug.”

Piper said similar progress needs to be made in reducing the use of drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which pose greater risks to teens, before the administration can claim victory. “It’s not quite the rosy picture that they’re painting,” Piper said.

Teens also reported declines in smoking consistent with a downward trend since the 1990s. But alcohol consumption among those surveyed has remained relatively stable at high levels, with more than 92% of 12th-graders finding it easy to obtain alcohol.

“There’s still a lot more work to be done,” Bush said.