High school seniors are continuing to use marijuana at high rates, at the same time that the perception of risk has dropped precipitously, officials said in releasing the annual Monitoring the Future study on December 19.

“We are increasingly concerned that regular or daily use of marijuana is robbing many young people of their potential to achieve and excel in school or other aspects of life,” said National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “THC, a key ingredient in marijuana, alters the ability of the hippocampus (a brain area related to learning and memory) to communicate effectively with other brain regions. In addition, we know from recent research that marijuana use that begins during adolescence can lower IQ and impair other measures of mental function into adulthood.”

The worst sign from this year’s survey is the perception of risk, which is at an all-time low for marijuana. Young people think marijuana is safe in part because of the increasing acceptance by politicians of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, said Volkow. If that trend continues, increased use would continue as well, she said.

Although marijuana use leveled off this year after four years of steadily rising, daily marijuana use — the most dangerous — is increasing, with 6.5 percent of high school seniors smoking marijuana daily in the last month. “The consequences of that — including dependence, brain damage and the effects on IQ — are a concern,” said Lloyd Johnston, Ph.D., distinguished senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Johnston leads the survey research for NIDA.

Nearly 23 percent of 12th graders smoked marijuana in the month prior to being surveyed, and 36 percent said they smoked it within the previous year. For 10th graders, 3.5 percent smoked marijuana daily, with 17 percent reporting past-month use and 28 percent reporting use in the past year. Only 1.1 percent of eighth graders reported daily use, and 6.5 percent past-month use. More than 11 percent of eighth graders said they used marijuana in the past year.

“We should also point out that marijuana use that begins in adolescence increases the risk they will become addicted to the drug,” said Volkow. “The risk of addiction goes from about 1 in 11 overall to about 1 in 6 for those who start using in their teens, and even higher among daily smokers.”

Occasional use of marijuana was seen as harmful by 41.7 percent of 8th graders but only 20.6 percent of 12th graders (the lowest since 1983). Only 44.1 percent of 12th graders see regular use as harmful, the lowest since 1979.

Bath salts and synthetic marijuana

For the first time, the survey measured teen use of “bath salts,” substances that contain an amphetamine-like stimulant and are often sold in drug paraphernalia stores. Use is relatively low: 1.3 percent among 12th graders.

Johnston says that “intense” media coverage of bath salts has deterred young people from using them. In addition, some of the components were scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which could have reduced availability.

Synthetic marijuana, however, is the second most commonly used illicit drug among 10th and 12th graders, with marijuana the first. Also known as K2 or Spice, synthetic marijuana is made by spraying synthetically produced cannabinoids (chemical elements found in cannabis) on herbs or other plant materials. “The fact that use of this dangerous drug has leveled is encouraging, but the fact that its prevalence rate has remained this high despite federal and state efforts to reduce its use is troublesome,” Johnston said. For the first time this year, synthetic marijuana use was measured in 8th and 10th grades. The annual prevalence rates were 4.4 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively.

Adderall

Abuse of the stimulant Adderall, often prescribed to treat ADHD, has increased over the past few years to 7.6 percent among high school seniors, up from 5.4 percent in 2009. There is also a reduction in the perceived risk, with only 35 percent of 12th graders believing that using it occasionally is harmful. As in past surveys, the survey shows that most teens who abused Adderall (and other prescription medications) got them from family members and friends.

The increased abuse of Adderall among high school seniors was also associated with a reduced perception of risk, noted Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “We have to examine how young people obtain these drugs,” he said at the press conference. Most of the teens said they used them to enhance performance in academics, typically to stay awake to study.

Alcohol and tobacco

All alcohol measures for teens declined in 2011, and some continued into 2012, the current survey year. For eighth graders, 30-day prevalence and 2-week prevalence rates for binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row) dropped. But binge drinking among 12th graders increased significantly in 2012, with 24 percent of high school seniors reporting binge drinking within the two weeks prior to the survey.

“This possible turnaround in alcohol consumption among the older teens is somewhat unexpected,” stated Johnston, “and certainly not a welcome development.” There was no decline in perceived risk or disapproval of binge drinking, nor any increase in perceived availability of alcohol, that might have helped to explain the change in use.

Tobacco use saw declines, although there are still young people who use non-cigarette forms of tobacco, such as small cigars. “We are very encouraged by the marked declines in tobacco use among youth. However, the documented use of non-cigarette tobacco products continues to be a concern,” said Howard K. Koh, M.D., assistant secretary for health for the Department of Health and Human Services. At the December 19 press conference, he stressed the importance of preventing tobacco use, citing it — as well as alcohol — as the leading substance abuse–related cause of morbidity and mortality.

For tables and figures from the survey, go to www.monitoringthefuture.org/data/12data.html.