Adolescent Drug Use before and during U.S. National COVID-19 Social Distancing Policies
How adolescent substance use and perceived availability of substances have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic remain largely unknown. Substantial reduction in availability of substances would present a unique opportunity to consider the supply-side hypothesis that reductions in drug availability will lead to reductions in drug prevalence.
Longitudinal data come from Monitoring the Future and are based on responses from 582 adolescents who were originally surveyed as part of a national sample of 12th grade students in early 2020, one month before social distancing policies began. They were surveyed again after social distancing policies were implemented, in the summer of 2020.
Perceived availability of marijuana and alcohol declined across the two survey waves at the largest levels ever recorded in the 46 years of the project, by an absolute 17 %, p < .01 and 24 %, p < .01, respectively. Despite these declines, prevalence levels did not significantly change across the two waves for marijuana use in the past 30 days or for binge alcohol use in the past two weeks. Perceived availability of vaping devices significantly declined, from 73 % to 63 %, as did nicotine vaping prevalence in the past 30 days, from 24 % to 17 %.
Perceived availability of marijuana, alcohol, and vaping devices declined at historic rates during the pandemic of 2020. Lack of accompanying reductions in prevalence for marijuana and binge alcohol use demonstrates the substantial challenges facing a supply-side approach to the reduction of adolescent use of these substances.
Research in context
The study found that despite the decline in perceived availability of alcohol and marijuana, prevalence levels of binge alcohol use and marijuana use did not decrease much among American adolescents during COVID-19 physical distancing measures.
The data for the study came from the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of substance use behaviors and related attitudes among adolescents in the United States. Usually, MTF surveys thousands of middle and high school students at more than a hundred schools across the country in the spring of each year. MTF has been conducting the project for 46 years.
Last year the MTF standard spring survey was followed up with a summer survey to gather data on the impact COVID-19 had on adolescent substance use.
Comparing the spring survey data from prior to the pandemic with the summer survey data since the pandemic began found that,
- Students who reported “fairly” or “very” easy access to alcohol dropped by 24 percentage points, from 86% to 62%, for marijuana the decrease was 17 percentage points, from 76% to 59%.
- These were the largest year-to-year decreases in perceived availability of alcohol and marijuana ever recorded since the survey began in 1975.
- Despite the reported declines in alcohol and marijuana availability, the levels of use of these substances did not change significantly.
- 17% reported binge alcohol use in the past two weeks pre-pandemic, compared to 13% during the pandemic.
- 23% of students said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days, compared to 20% during the pandemic
- However, there was a moderate and significant decrease in nicotine vaping – before the pandemic, 24% of respondents said they had vaped nicotine in the past 30 days, compared to 17% during the pandemic.
According to the study, even with the perceived availability of substances reaching an all time low, students reported having access to the substances.
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,” said Nora D. Volkow, Director of National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), as per News Medical Life Sciences.Nora D. Volkow, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
These findings suggest that reducing adolescent substance use through attempts to restrict supply alone would be a difficult undertaking,” added Dr. Richard A. Miech, lead author of the paper and team lead of the Monitoring the Future study at the University of Michigan as per, News Medical Life Sciences.
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.”Dr. Richard A. Miech, lead author, team lead Monitoring the Future study, University of Michigan