Ecstasy use among American teens drops for the first time
in recent years, and overall use of drug and alcohol declines in the year
Monitoring the Future, conducted at the Institute for Social Research
and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has tracked substance
use among American high school seniors for 28 years and among 8th and
10th graders for 12 years. In 2002, about 44,000 students in nearly 400
secondary schools across the country participated in the scientific survey,
often described as the most reliable source of information on adolescent
Ecstasy use declines
According to social psychologist Lloyd Johnston, the study’s principal
investigator, and his colleagues and coauthors, Patrick O’Malley
and Jerald Bachman, this year’s downturn in ecstasy use was not
entirely unexpected. “We have been saying for some time that the
sharp rise in ecstasy use would not turn around until young people began
to see this drug as more dangerous,” Johnston says. “Last
year, more young people did report ecstasy use as being dangerous, and
the rise in use slowed.
“However, the drug was still diffusing out to new communities last
year, so the total number of users still continued to rise. This year,
however, there was another sharp rise in the proportion of young people
saying that ecstasy use is dangerous and we finally began to see a decline
Ecstasy use is down in all three prevalence periods measured (lifetime,
annual and 30-day) in all three grade levels. The one-year declines ranged
from about one-tenth to nearly one-third. For example, among high school
seniors annual use rates declined from 9.2 percent to 7.4 percent. For
the three grades combined, the declines in annual prevalence and 30-day
prevalence were statistically significant, as were the annual and 30-day
declines for 10th graders, specifically.
In 2000, only 38 percent of 12th graders said there was a great risk of
harm associated with trying ecstasy. That figure jumped to 46 percent
in 2001 and again in 2002 to 52 percent. “These changes constitute
unusually rapid changes in this belief and no doubt reflect the effects
of media coverage of adverse events, as well as the efforts of the National
Institute on Drug Abuse to document and disseminate information on the
adverse consequences of using ecstasy,” Johnston says.
Disapproval of ecstasy use rose sharply in all three grades this year,
indicating that peer norms against the use of this drug are strengthening.
The availability of ecstasy, as reported by the students, leveled off
this year following several years of steep increases in availability.
Overall illicit drug use declines
Over the past several years, the proportions of older students reporting
use of any of the illicit drugs held fairly steady, while 8th graders
had been showing a gradual decline. This year, the proportion of students
reporting the use of any illicit drug in the prior 12 months (annual prevalence)
declined at all three grade levels, significantly so in grades 8 and 10.
Similar decreases were observed in all three prevalence periods—lifetime,
annual and 30-day.
Specific drugs showing a decline
Marijuana: For 8th graders the annual prevalence of marijuana use
in 2002 of 14.6 percent is down from the recent peak of 18.3 percent in
1996. At 30.3 percent in 2002, annual prevalence for 10th graders is somewhat
below the recent 1997 peak of 34.8 percent, but 12th graders are down
only modestly, from the recent 1997 peak of 38.5 percent to 36.2 percent
While in the past a decrease in marijuana use has generally been preceded
by an increase in perceived risk for that drug, this time there was no
such increase in this belief. Nor has the proportion of students personally
disapproving of marijuana use changed much in the last few years, although
it is higher now than it was in 1996 or 1997—the recent low points
among 8th and 10th graders, respectively.
Illicit drugs other than marijuana: In all
three grades the proportions of students using any illicit drug other
than marijuana also fell in 2002 and did so for all three prevalence periods
(lifetime, annual and 30-day use), with one minor exception. Twelfth-grade
30-day prevalence remained unchanged. The declines in annual prevalence
were statistically significant in both 8th and 10th grades, with drops
of 2.0 and 2.1 percentage points, respectively. The rate among 8th graders
is now one-third lower than it was in 1996, the recent peak year. Annual
use is down about one-seventh, or 15 percent, from the same peak year
among 10th graders. In 2002 the proportion of students indicating that
they had used any illicit drug other than marijuana during the past year
stood at 9 percent, 16 percent and 21 percent in grades 8, 10 and 12.
At the peak in 1981, some 34 percent of 12th graders indicated such use.
LSD: The use of LSD declined sharply and
significantly at all three grades in 2002. This continues a drop that
began in 1996. Perceived risk and disapproval generally have not been
moving in ways that would help to explain this decline in use (although
both rose this year in 12th grade only, for the first time), so the investigators
believe part of the explanation may have been a shift to ecstasy use.
There has been some drop in the reported availability of LSD, including
a significant drop in all grades this year, but whether this is a cause
or a result of fewer students using the drug remains unclear.
Other hallucinogens: The use of hallucinogens
other than LSD showed modest declines this year at all three grades in
both lifetime and annual prevalence, although none of these changes reached
statistical significance. This continued a gradual decline that began
some years earlier in this general class of drugs. Psilocybin from mushrooms
(“shrooms”) is the dominant substance used in this class of
Inhalants: Volatile inhalants—including
such substances as glue, aerosols and butane—constitute another
class of drugs with declining use this year, continuing a much longer-term
decline. All three grades showed a drop in all prevalence periods, with
one exception: there was no change in annual prevalence at 12th grade.
The declines in lifetime prevalence for 8th and 10th graders were significant,
as was the decline in annual prevalence for 8th graders. The cumulative
declines in inhalant use are substantial; for instance, 8th-grade annual
use declined from 12.8 percent in 1995 to 7.7 percent in 2002—a
drop of 40 percent.
In general, perceived risk has risen during that period (though there
was some decline in perceived risk in 2002, which could serve as a warning
of increases in the future). Disapproval also rose and remains at high
levels. Availability is not asked because most of these substances are
presumed to be universally available.
“The turnaround in inhalant use and beliefs about its harmfulness
corresponds exactly with the start of the Partnership for a Drug-Free
America’s anti-inhalant ad campaign, so we are inclined to credit
much of the improvement in inhalant use to that intervention,” Johnston
Amphetamines: The use of amphetamines showed
some decline in grades 8 and 10, but not in grade 12. Among 8th graders
this is the continuation of a longer-term decline going on since 1996.
Among 10th graders it is the first evidence of a decline in recent years,
although not large enough to reach statistical significance. Among 12th
graders the rate of amphetamine use remains at the recent peak level.
Methamphetamine: Use continued a longer-term
decline among 8th-graders but remained relatively stable in 2002 among
10th and 12th graders, after some modest declines in use in those grades
over the prior two years. “It does not appear that methamphetamine
use is getting any worse among youth, as some may have feared. If anything,
it is declining some,” Johnston says.
Drugs holding steady
The use of several drugs held fairly steady in 2002 among teens. These
include heroin, narcotics other than heroin, cocaine and, for the most
part, crack. Steroid use also held steady.
Heroin: By 2001 heroin use had dropped below
recent peak levels in all grades. In 2002 overall use held steady, including
use with and without a needle. Perceived risk for heroin, as well as disapproval,
also held fairly steady this year. Over the past several years the perceived
availability of heroin has declined some at all three grade levels.
Other narcotics: The use of this class of
drugs is reported only for 12th graders. Their annual prevalence of use
more than doubled between 1992 and 2000, rising from 3.3 percent to 7.0
percent. After 2000, use leveled and is at 7.0 percent in 2002. Questions
about two specific drugs in this category—Oxycontin and Vicodin—were
included for the first time this year. Oxycontin has stirred considerable
attention in the media in recent years as concern about its diversion
through illegitimate channels has grown. Oxycontin, a prescription narcotic
intended for the relief of pain, had annual prevalence rates in 2002 of
1 percent, 3 percent and 4 percent in 8th, 10th and 12th grades, respectively.
These numbers reflect only use outside of medical supervision.
“While not as high as some may have feared, these are not insignificant
rates of use for a powerful and addictive narcotic drug,” Johnston
says. Vicodin, another prescription narcotic, shows considerably higher
annual prevalence rates: 3 percent, 7 percent and 10 percent in 8th, 10th
and 12th grades. No trend data are available for these two specific drugs.
Cocaine: The proportion of students in each of the three grades reporting
any cocaine use has held steady over the past three years. These rates
are much lower than they were during the height of the cocaine epidemic
in the early to mid-1980s, and they are down modestly from recent peaks
reached in the mid-1990s.
Steroids: The use of anabolic steroids, the
majority of which occurs among males, remained flat in 2002 in all three
grades, though at historically high levels. Steroid use rose sharply in
the prior several years. Perceived risk and disapproval of the use of
these drugs, which had fallen in recent years, remained fairly steady
in 2002, as did perceived availability.
Drugs increasing in use
With the turnaround in ecstasy use this year, there is little remaining
evidence of increases in illicit drug use among American teens. The only
two classes of drugs that show any sign of further, modest increase—at
least among 12th graders—are barbiturate sedatives and minor tranquilizers.
Alcohol use declines
Some important declines in adolescent alcohol use occurred in 2002. Some
are continuations of a longer-term pattern, especially among 8th-grade
Any alcohol use: There were sizeable drops
at all three grades in the proportion of students saying they had any
alcohol to drink in the past year and in the past 30 days. These declines
were statistically significant at grades 8 and 10. The 30-day prevalence
of alcohol use among 8th graders has fallen from the recent 1996 high
of 26 percent to 20 percent by 2002. From 2001 to 2002, 30-day prevalence
among 10th graders fell from 39 percent to 35 percent.
“Among the younger students there was also a significant decline
in the proportion who say they ever drank an alcoholic beverage at any
time in their life,” Johnston says.
Declines in drunkenness: There were declines
in all three grades in the proportions of students saying that they got
drunk in the previous year and in the previous 30 days. These declines
continue a gradual trend that has occurred over the last several years.
The proportions of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 who say they were drunk
at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey were 7 percent, 18 percent
and 30 percent in 2002. While high, these rates all are down by between
1 and 4 percentage points from the previous year.
Johnston observes that a somewhat unusual pattern of change has been occurring
in recent years. “It is noteworthy that the resurgence of the drug
epidemic that occurred in the 1990s was specific to adolescents; and only
as they grew older did drug use also rise among young adults. The upturn
in use occurred first among the youngest students we follow—the
8th graders—and then spread up the age spectrum. Such a spread of
a behavior through generational replacement is called a cohort effect,
and we observed such a cohort effect for drug use in the 1990s.”
“In more recent years, we seem to be seeing another cohort effect—a
reversal of the first one—with the 8th graders being the first to
show declines in drug use, albeit very gradual ones. To some degree, at
least, those declines seem to be working their way up the age spectrum,
as the lower-using 8th graders become the 10th and eventually the 12th
The role of 9/11?
While it could be coincidental that smoking, drinking, and drug use all
showed downturns in the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it
also is possible that these events had an impact, Johnston says. “A
decline in use already was underway for a number of substances, including
cigarettes, inhalants, LSD and others. On the other hand, the downturn
in alcohol use this year was striking, and overall illicit drug use began
to decline for the first time across the board,” he says. “So,
I think it quite possible that the tragedy of 9/11 had somewhat of a sobering
effect on the country’s young people. Maybe it helped some, at least,
to clarify what is and is not important to them.”
Johnston adds one caution about the future relating to the looming possibility
of another war. “In the Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s,
the nation’s institutions took their eyes off the problem of drug
abuse, which fell off the national radar screen for several years. That
set the stage for the resurgence of the drug epidemic among adolescents
that we saw in the 1990s, as a new generation of naïve youngsters
entered adolescence hearing little about the consequences of drug use.
I think we can learn from that mistake and should make every effort to
avoid repeating it. This constellation of problems needs continuous and
focused attention. Drug and alcohol use by our youth are problems that
are not going to go away, nor can we wish them away; but they can be contained
if we attend to them continuously and wisely. In particular, we need to
remember that the job of educating and persuading our youngsters is never
done, because there are always new ones entering adolescence.”