Youth survey shows marijuana use rising

Study also shows falling rates of alcohol, tobacco and prescription drug use

  • Cherry Sullivan  

  • Heather Warner, front, and J. Cherry Sullivan present the results of the 2017 Massachusetts Prevention Needs Assessment Survey to more than 100 people who attended the gathering on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. EMILY CUTTS

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

HADLEY — Fewer 10th- and 12th-graders in Hampshire County are using alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs, but the number using marijuana is increasing, according to recent data.

The information comes from the 2017 Massachusetts Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, which asks middle and high schoolers to report on their attitudes and norms around substance use and misuse.

The survey, sponsored by the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth (SPIFFY) and the Collaborative for Educational Services, polled a total of 3,320 public school students in the county’s 13 school districts in grades 8, 10 and 12.

On Monday, more than 100 people gathered at the Hadley Farms Meeting House to hear the results. Presenting the information was SPIFFY coordinator Heather Warner and J. Cherry Sullivan, Hampshire HOPE coordinator.

Marijuana attitudes soften

In 2017, 31 percent of 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed reported using marijuana in the past 30 days. That number is up from 2007 when 27 percent reported using marijuana. Eighth-grade usage has fluctuated very little over the same time frame and remained the same — 5 percent — in 2017 as in 2007.

Fewer students across the county are reporting that they perceive marijuana as moderately or greatly risky, according to the data.

“We know that policy makes a difference,” Sullivan said, referencing a chart that shows use rates of marijuana and all prescription drugs in relation to major policy decisions.

On the chart, Sullivan showed that following marijuana’s decriminalization in 2008, usage among youth surveyed went up in 2009 but then decreased for a period of years. When voters chose to legalize recreational marijuana for those over 21, usage started to increase, according to the data.

“How does marijuana policy shape the cultural norm?” Sullivan asked. “How does that relate to how youth perceive marijuana? That is something we really want to continue to explore.”

From 2009 to this year, fewer students consistently reported that they perceive marijuana to be moderately or greatly risky, and fewer also think their parents perceive marijuana use to be wrong or very wrong.

Eighth- and 10th-grade marijuana usage in the past three days in Hampshire County mirrored that at the state level at around 5 percent and 20 percent respectively. For high school seniors, usage rates were well above both the state and national average at around 35 percent.

“We continue to be concerned about the rise in marijuana, especially in the face of the other drug use going down,” said Ruth Ever, Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition coordinator and member of the SPIFFY steering committee.

For Warner and some who saw the data Monday, a shocking disconnect was reported by students between what teens are reporting they experienced as a result of marijuana use and how risky they perceive it to be.

“I think their overall sense of how well they are doing can also be skewed,” Warner said.

High school sophomores who reported using marijuana also reported feeling tired, groggy or unmotivated (47 percent) and said they had difficulty remembering things (35 percent).

Tobacco use, vaping

Nearly 100 percent of parents think it’s wrong or very wrong for their children to smoke cigarettes, at least according to the youth surveyed. That number has grown slightly from 94 percent in 2009 to 98 percent in 2017.

“We know that public heath has done really great work about tobacco,” Sullivan said.

Usage rates have gone down, cultural norms about smoking have shifted, and that work has really created change in that youth are less likely to use tobacco, Sullivan explained.

But with the emerging market of vaping and e-cigarettes, teens are now using those products in increasing numbers.

The survey has only been collecting data on e-cigarette use and vaping since 2013 but a substantial increase in use amongst eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders has been recorded.

“We often hear about e-cigarettes being only marketed at adults,” but the data presented seem to tell a different story, Sullivan said.

Using information from the 2015 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the 2015 Massachusetts Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, current use of e-cigarettes by high school youth was 23.7 percent of all youth surveyed, compared to 2.6 percent of adults surveyed. When it comes to those who have ever tried e-cigarettes, the difference is similar, with 44.8 percent of youth having tried e-cigarettes at least once, compared to 13.5 percent of adults who say the same thing.

“Who is using these products?” Sullivan said. “Clearly, youth.”

Still, the vast majority of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders have never vaped anything — vape juice with or without nicotine, marijuana or tobacco, according to the data.

More than 80 percent of eighth-graders, more than 60 percent of 10th-graders and more than 50 percent of high school seniors self-reported never using an electronic vapor product.

For Judy Metcalf, the director of the Quabbin Health District, the data on vaping were surprising. Metcalf said the tobacco use campaigns of the 1990s focused on unhealthy smoking was but didn’t pay attention to the use of nicotine or drugs in other forms.

“I think we didn’t give a complete picture,” Metcalf said. “It’s not just physically setting on fire and using tobacco, but it’s also in the vaping and the different kind of deliveries of nicotine and these drugs. I think that we all need to do a better job doing that.”

The entire report can be found on the Collaborative for Educational Services website.

Emily Cutts can be found at ecutts@gazettenet.com.