Even a Pandemic Can't Stop Teens' Alcohol and Marijuana Use

Richard Franki

June 29, 2021

Despite record-breaking decreases in perceived availability of alcohol and marijuana among 12th-grade students, their use of these substances did not change significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two surveys conducted in 2020.

 

Vaping, however, did not show the same pattern. A decline in use over the previous 30 days was seen between the two surveys — conducted from Feb. 11 to March 15 and July 16 to Aug. 10 — along with a perceived reduction in the supply of vaping devices, Richard A. Miech, PhD, and associates said in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

"Last year brought dramatic changes to adolescents' lives, as many teens remained home with parents and other family members full time," Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a separate written statement. "It is striking that, despite this monumental shift and teens' perceived decreases in availability of marijuana and alcohol, usage rates held steady for these substances. This indicates that teens were able to obtain them despite barriers caused by the pandemic and despite not being of age to legally purchase them."

In the first poll, conducted as part of the Monitoring the Future survey largely before the national emergency was declared, 86% of 12th-graders said that it was "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get alcohol, but that dropped to 62% in the second survey. For marijuana, prevalence of that level of availability was 76% before and 59% during the pandemic, Miech of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and associates reported.

These results "indicate the largest decreases in substance use availability ever recorded in the 46 consecutive years it has been monitored by Monitoring the Future," the investigators wrote.

The prevalence of marijuana use in the past 30 days declined from 23% before the pandemic to 20% during, with the respective figures for binge drinking in the past 2 weeks at 17% and 13%, and neither of those reductions reached significance, they noted.

"Adolescents may redouble their substance procurement efforts so that they can continue using substances at the levels at which they used in the past. In addition, adolescents may move to more solitary substance use. Social distancing policies might even increase substance use to the extent that they lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness that some adolescents address through increased substance use," they suggested.

This hypothesis does not apply to vaping. The significant decline in availability — 73% before and 63% during — was accompanied by a significant drop in prevalence of past 30-day use from 24% to 17%, based on the survey data, which came from 3,770 responses to the first poll and 582 to the second.

In the case of vaping, the decline in use may have been caused by the decreased "exposure to substance-using peer networks...and adults who provide opportunities for youth to initiate and continue use of substances," Miech and associates said.

The findings of this analysis "suggest that reducing adolescent substance use through attempts to restrict supply alone would be a difficult undertaking," Miech said in the NIDA statement. "The best strategy is likely to be one that combines approaches to limit the supply of these substances with efforts to decrease demand, through educational and public health campaigns."

The research was funded by a NIDA grant. The investigators did not declare any conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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