NIH Survey Finds Cannabis Use Among Adults Highest Ever Recorded by Agency
In 2021, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) panel study revealed noteworthy shifts in substance use patterns among young adults aged 19 to 30. Notably, the utilization of marijuana and hallucinogens within the past year experienced a significant surge compared to data from five and ten years prior. This surge marked a historic pinnacle for this age group since 1988.
Simultaneously, the prevalence of nicotine vaping in the past month continued its gradual upward trajectory in young adults, maintaining its general trend over the past four years. This was despite a brief leveling off in 2020. The practice of marijuana vaping within the past month, which had seen a notable decrease in 2020, rebounded to levels seen before the pandemic in 2021.
Although alcohol maintains its status as the primary substance of preference among adults under examination, the rates of yearly, monthly, and daily drinking have experienced a decline throughout the past decade. Notably, binge drinking—characterized by consuming five or more drinks consecutively within two weeks—rebounded in 2021 from a historically low level in 2020. This resurgence coincided with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conversely, the pattern of high-intensity drinking, involving the consumption of ten or more drinks consecutively within two weeks, has consistently risen over the past decade. By 2021, it reached its highest recorded level since its initial measurement in 2005.
Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, remarked that with the evolution of the drug landscape over time, this data grants us insight into the preferences and usage trends among young adults. Gaining a deeper understanding of how substances like marijuana and hallucinogens are consumed by young adults, including the potential health implications of various strengths and formats, is paramount.
She emphasized that the young adult phase is pivotal, serving as a time of crucial decision-making. Comprehending the influence of substance use on these formative choices is essential to empower the upcoming generations for a prosperous future.
Starting in 1975, the Monitoring the Future study has been annually investigating the behaviors and viewpoints related to substance use among a representative cross-section of teenagers. A segment of this group is pursued longitudinally in the MTF study, involving subsequent surveys to monitor their drug usage as they transition into adulthood.
The 2021 Survey Data
The three main periods covered by the self-reported responses from respondents are lifetime, the previous year (12 months), and the recent month (30 days). NIDA, a National Institutes of Health division, funds the MTF project. It is run by academics from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor.
Data for the 2021 survey were gathered online between April and October. Notable findings within the young adult category include:
Past-year, past-month, and daily marijuana consumption (defined as using on 20 or more occasions within the last 30 days) have reached their highest documented levels since monitoring these trends in 1988. The segment of young adults reporting past-year marijuana use reached 43% in 2021, marking a substantial upswing from 34% five years ago in 2016 and 29% a decade in 2011.
Regarding usage within the past month, 29% of young adults acknowledged consuming marijuana in 2021, demonstrating an increase from 21% in 2016 and 17% in 2011. During these corresponding time frames, the incidence of daily marijuana usage also underwent noteworthy expansion, with 11% of young adults reporting daily consumption in 2021, in contrast to 8% in 2016 and 6% in 2011.
The trend in past-year hallucinogen use remained relatively stable over several decades until a significant increase became evident in 2020. In 2021, 8% of young adults disclosed engaging in past-year hallucinogen use, marking an unprecedented peak since this category was initially examined in 1988. In comparison, the figures were 5% in 2016 and merely 3% in 2011.
The substances identified as hallucinogens by participants encompassed LSD, MDMA, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin (commonly referred to as “shrooms”), and PCP. Interestingly, the sole hallucinogen that experienced a noteworthy decline in usage was MDMA, also known as ecstasy or Molly. This substance exhibited statistically significant reductions in one-year and five-year periods, dropping from 5% in 2016 and 2020 to 3% in 2021.
After experiencing a significant decrease in 2020, the incidence of binge drinking among young adults—defined as consuming five or more drinks consecutively within two weeks—reverted to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 (32% in 2021, compared to 28% in 2020 and 32% in 2019).
Conversely, high-intensity drinking—characterized by consuming ten or more drinks consecutively within two weeks—attained its highest recorded level since its initial measurement in 2005. In 2021, 13% of young adults reported engaging in high-intensity drinking, compared to 11% in 2005.
Nevertheless, the prevalence of alcohol use within the past month, past year, and daily consumption has exhibited a downward trajectory among young adults over the past decade. To illustrate, in 2021, 66% of young adults reported engaging in alcohol consumption within the previous 30 days, marking a significant decrease from the 70% reported in 2016 and 69% in 2011.
The research also unveiled substantial deductions in the frequency of past-month cigarette smoking by young adults and non-medical utilization of opioid medications within the past year (inquired as “narcotics other than heroin”) compared to data from a decade ago. Both of these substances have consistently experienced a decline in usage over the past ten years.
Further insights from the 2021 MTF panel study encompass data on drug usage among adults aged 35 to 50 and college and non-college young adults, spanning various demographic subgroups.
Megan Patrick, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of the MTF panel study, made some interesting remarks. She said that one of the most effective ways to delve into drug use and its repercussions is by observing the emergence of various drugs within specific populations, durations, and contexts.”
She added that consistent and comprehensive surveys like Monitoring the Future enable us to analyze the outcomes of ‘natural experiments,’ such as the impact of the pandemic. This approach allows us to scrutinize the how and why of drug usage, highlighting pivotal aspects that should guide future research directions and inform public health interventions.”
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