Many Questions Remain About Youth Substance Use Trends

December 15, 2020

The following is from the web blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA.

The results of the 2020 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of drug use and attitudes in middle and high school students were released today, with the encouraging news that the alarming rises in teen vaping both of nicotine and marijuana seen in prior years had leveled off, although use remained high. But as with so many other efforts in 2020, the MTF survey was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we are left at the end of this tumultuous year with many questions about how circumstances have affected youth, their substance use, and their mental health more generally.

The MTF survey is ordinarily conducted from February until May, with the results released later the same year. This year, schools closed in mid-March before the majority of the students could be surveyed, leaving the University of Michigan researchers who conduct the survey with a smaller-than-usual sample—11,821 students in 112 schools. Although only a quarter the size of the usual sample, it remained nationally representative and contained much valuable data.

Generally, the 2020 MTF showed continued low levels of most forms of substance use among teens, including very low levels of opioid use despite the devastating effects opioids have had on all older age groups including young adults. However, there are other indications that the evolving addiction and overdose crisis is directly affecting youth. For example, a study by CDC researchers just published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows increases in suspected nonfatal overdoses involving stimulants (a category that includes prescription stimulants, cocaine, and methamphetamine) in children and teens between 2016 and 2019. MTF shows decreases in use of prescription stimulants in 10th and 12th graders but a trend toward increased use among 8th graders. It will be important to closely monitor adolescent stimulant use in future MTF surveys.

The MTF data collected at the beginning of this year reflect a certain point of relative normality before the COVID-19 pandemic threw all our lives into upheaval, including the lives of teens. As we seek to understand adolescent substance use in this new reality, we look to research to answer many important questions on how the stresses of the pandemic may have affected substance use by teens. For example, it is important to investigate the consequences of social distancing and virtual classes on adolescent drug experimentation and use, since those are strongly influenced by peer pressure and group dynamics. NIDA has issued supplemental funds to existing grantees to help study the impact of the pandemic on adolescents’ risk of substance use; their access to prevention and treatment services; and the pandemic’s effects on families. Future research, including the results of next year’s MTF survey, can help us understand how school closures and lockdowns affected adolescent substance use.  

Although research has suggested that the pandemic’s stresses have increased many forms of substance use in adults, it remains to be seen whether reduced ability to interact with peers or other sources of drugs may be a mitigating factor in youth. There is already evidence that reduced commercial availability of vape products during the pandemic may be affecting teen vaping. Researchers at Stanford and University of California San Francisco captured self-reported vaping habits of 2,167 teen and young-adult e-cigarette users in May, two months after the national emergency was declared and after MTF stopped gathering data for the 2020 survey. Over half of the respondents reported changing their use of vaping products, with 68 percent of those reporting that they had reduced their use or quit. Inability to purchase the products was one reason cited.

2020 has posed many urgent questions for science. Finding out the different ways the pandemic and other stresses of the year have affected young people is a high priority. Adolescence is an important period of social and emotional development, and the pandemic has disrupted many of the processes that impact that development. NIDA research has pivoted to ensure we address this unique time in history as we pursue scientific solutions to the impacts of drug use and addiction across the lifespan.

COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders

From National Institute on Drug Abuse
March 24, 2020

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As people across the U.S. and the rest of the world contend with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the research community should be alert to the possibility that it could hit some populations with substance use disorders (SUDs) particularly hard. Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape. People with opioid use disorder (OUD) and methamphetamine use disorder may also be vulnerable due to those drugs’ effects on respiratory and pulmonary health. Additionally, individuals with a substance use disorder are more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than those in the general population, and these circumstances pose unique challenges regarding transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. All these possibilities should be a focus of active surveillance as we work to understand this emerging health threat.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is believed to have jumped species from other mammals (likely bats) to first infect humans in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, in late 2019. It attacks the respiratory tract and appears to have a higher fatality rate than seasonal influenza. The exact fatality rate is still unknown, since it depends on the number of undiagnosed and asymptomatic cases, and further analyses are needed to determine those figures. Thus far, deaths and serious illness from COVID-19 seem concentrated among those who are older and who have underlying health issues, such as diabetes, cancer, and respiratory conditions. It is therefore reasonable to be concerned that compromised lung function or lung disease related to smoking history, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), could put people at risk for serious complications of COVID-19.

Co-occurring conditions including COPD, cardiovascular disease, and other respiratory diseases have been found to worsen prognosis in patients with other coronaviruses that affect the respiratory system, such as those that cause SARS and MERS. According to a case series published in JAMA based on data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), the case fatality rate (CFR) for COVID-19 was 6.3 percent for those with chronic respiratory disease, compared to a CFR of 2.3 percent overall. In China, 52.9 percent of men smoke, in contrast to just 2.4 percent of women; further analysis of the emerging COVID-19 data from China could help determine if this disparity is contributing to the higher mortality observed in men compared to women, as reported by China CDC. While data thus far are preliminary, they do highlight the need for further research to clarify the role of underlying illness and other factors in susceptibility to COVID-19 and its clinical course.

Vaping, like smoking, may also harm lung health. Whether it can lead to COPD is still unknown, but emerging evidence suggests that exposure to aerosols from e-cigarettes harms the cells of the lung and diminishes the ability to respond to infection. In one NIH-supported study, for instance, influenza virus-infected mice exposed to these aerosols had enhanced tissue damage and inflammation.

People who use opioids at high doses medically or who have Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) face separate challenges to their respiratory health. Since opioids act in the brainstem to slow breathing, their use not only puts the user at risk of life-threatening or fatal overdose, it may also cause a harmful decrease in oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia). Lack of oxygen can be especially damaging to the brain; while brain cells can withstand short periods of low oxygen, they can suffer damage when this state persists. Chronic respiratory disease is already known to increase overdose mortality risk among people taking opioids, and thus diminished lung capacity from COVID-19 could similarly endanger this population.

A history of methamphetamine use may also put people at risk. Methamphetamine constricts the blood vessels, which is one of the properties that contributes to pulmonary damage and pulmonary hypertension in people who use it. Clinicians should be prepared to monitor the possible adverse effects of methamphetamine use, the prevalence of which is increasing in our country, when treating those with COVID-19.

Other risks for people with substance use disorders include decreased access to health care, housing insecurity, and greater likelihood for incarceration. Limited access to health care places people with addiction at greater risk for many illnesses, but if hospitals and clinics are pushed to their capacity, it could be that people with addiction—who are already stigmatized and underserved by the healthcare system—will experience even greater barriers to treatment for COVID-19. Homelessness or incarceration can expose people to environments where they are in close contact with others who might also be at higher risk for infections. The prospect of self-quarantine and other public health measures may also disrupt access to syringe services, medications, and other support needed by people with OUD.

We know very little right now about COVID-19 and even less about its intersection with substance use disorders. But we can make educated guesses based on past experience that people with compromised health due to smoking or vaping and people with opioid, methamphetamine, cannabis, and other substance use disorders could find themselves at increased risk of COVID-19 and its more serious complications—for multiple physiological and social/environmental reasons. The research community should thus be alert to associations between COVID-19 case severity/mortality and substance use, smoking or vaping history, and smoking- or vaping-related lung disease. We must also ensure that patients with substance use disorders are not discriminated against if a rise in COVID-19 cases places added burden on our healthcare system.

As we strive to confront the major health challenges of opioid and other drug overdoses—and now the rising infections with COVID-19—NIDA encourages researchers to request supplements that will allow them to obtain data on the risks for COVID-19 in individuals experiencing substance use disorders.

Vulnerable Populations

The most vulnerable to Covid-19 among substance abuses is going to be the crack-smoking homeless. The homeless are vulnerable just by being homeless, but add to that the lung damage from smoking crack and the risk is compounded. As Dr. Volkow points out, tobacco and marijuana smoking are also more prevalent among those who are homeless. This is going to be an important area of research.

 

Recovery 2019: The Year in Review

From the Recovery Advocacy Update blog of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation originally posted on January 7, 2020.

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As Americans reflect on the past decade, the much more defining story, of course, was the opioid crisis, which fueled an unprecedented overdose epidemic that has barely begun to abate. Drug overdoses claimed a mind-boggling half-million lives in the 2010s and devastated countless others, while exposing the inadequacy of our nation’s overall approach and commitment to preventing and treating addiction, and supporting long-term recovery.

Amid the tragedy, we saw the beginning of positive change in addiction-related public attitudes, perceptions, policies, practices and systems. Hazelden Betty Ford has helped lead the way with many changes of its own. They began using opioid-addiction-treatment medications in 2012, and became a strong advocate for comprehensive care that includes medication options, psychosocial therapies and peer support. They emerged as a leading voice for breaking down barriers between the medical and Twelve Step communities.

Hazelden Betty Ford also transitioned to an insurance model so more people could access care; evolved away from the 28-day residential standard to a more individualized approach that enables people to stay engaged longer over multiple levels of care; launched a new era of aggressive collaboration with the broader healthcare field; made the evidence-based therapy “motivational interviewing” core to a more patient-centered clinical approach; initiated a new, innovative system for capturing and acting upon patient feedback throughout the treatment experience; developed new recovery coaching options; and much more. In addition, the foundation spoke up vigorously about the need for ethical and quality standards in recovery, and continued to support related industry reform efforts. It was a decade of big change for them, and they will likely evolve a great deal more in the 2020s, as they have consistently done since 1949.

Broader changes to the many systems that affect people with addiction are coming more slowly, but things seem to be pointed in the direction of progress. Indeed, most addiction specialists want addiction prevented and treated, rather than stigmatized and criminalized. The question arises, though: Does that mean it is wise to fully legalize and commercialize more addictive substances? Or are there policies and approaches in between that promote public health better than either extreme?

In the new decade, marijuana will be a case study and likely a defining story. The experiment with full legalization looks troubling so far. State-level data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds that marijuana use in “legal” states among youth, young adults, and the general population continued its multi-year upward trend in several categories. New data and studies come in weekly, it seems—consistently showing cause for greater public health concerns. One of the foundation’s 2020 resolutions is to help ensure the facts about marijuana and the risks of expanded use get more attention.

One big concern, for example, is that marijuana vaping by teens surged in 2019, signaling that more adolescents are using the drug and consuming highly potent vape oils, according to new government data and drug-use researchers. Federal regulators are paying attention. They shut down 44 websites advertising illicit THC vaping cartridges, part of a crackdown on suppliers amid a nationwide spate of lung injuries tied to black-market cannabis vaping products.

The outbreak of severe lung injuries may have peaked, but cases are still surfacing, and the agency is urging doctors to monitor people closely after hospitalization, due to the risk of continued vaping. One Harvard graduate student writes, “I nearly died from vaping THC, and you could too.” Marijuana and vaping are both among the issues coming up on the campaign trail, and recent polling released by the National Council for Behavioral Health shows strong bipartisan agreement among registered voters in New Hampshire that the federal government is not doing enough to address mental health and addiction in America. Mental Health for US, a coalition trying to raise more awareness in the campaign, held a recent forum in New Hampshire. Watch the livestream replay here.

In Washington, the White House hosted a summit of its own on efforts to deliver mental health treatment to people experiencing homelessness, violence and substance use disorder. Watch Part 1 of the event, Part 2, and the President’s remarks. The Administration also issued its long-awaited vaping policy last week, with the FDA banning fruit, mint and dessert-flavored vaping cartridges but continuing to allow menthol- and tobacco-flavored cartridges as well as all flavored e-cigarette liquids. Many worry the guidelines don’t go far enough.

Since the foundation’s last update, the President also signed a $1.4 trillion spending package passed by Congress, averting a government shutdown. The package maintains funding levels for most areas relevant to the field of addiction counseling, with modest increases in a few SAMHSA grants as well as at the CDC and at the National Institutes of Health. Most notably, the legislation gives states more flexibility in spending State Opioid Response (SOR) grant funds; specifically, they’ll now be able to use the money to also address the growing problems associated with addiction to meth, cocaine and other stimulants. Here’s a thorough overview from our friends at the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.

If you are interested in more information about these topics or the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, please visit their website by clicking here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder and want more information or help quitting, please contact your local AA or NA chapter, or click here to visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse official website. You can also scroll back to the top of this post and click on the COMMENT bar to open an dialog with me. I will be glad to speak with you any time.

2019 Monitoring the Future Survey Raises Worries about Teen Marijuana Vaping

From the monthly blog of Dr. Lora Volkow,
Executive Director
National Institute on on Drug Abuse

Originally posted December 18, 2019

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For the second year in a row, rapid rises in vaping among adolescents are the top story from the Monitoring the Future survey of drug use and attitudes among the country’s 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. What became evident in 2018 was that vaping devices, which have exploded in popularity over the past several years, are now exposing a new generation to nicotine. Those trends continued in 2019, but with the additional concern of a rapid rise in the vaping of marijuana, as well as increases in daily marijuana use in 10th graders.

More than one fifth of high school seniors (20.8 %) reported having vaped marijuana in the past year, as did nearly that same proportion of 10th graders (19.4 %). From 2018 to 2019, the percentage of seniors vaping marijuana in the past month increased from 7.5 percent to 14 percent—the second largest one-year increase in any drug use that has ever been recorded in the 45-year history of the MTF survey. (The first largest increase was nicotine vaping from 2017 to 2018 reported last year.) Among 10th graders, past-month use was 12.6 percent.

Overall, marijuana use has held relatively steady over the past several years despite wider availability and diminished perception of the drug’s harms by this age group (and by the U.S. population more generally). But the increases in vaping of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, are alarming for a number of reasons. For one thing, we don’t yet know if THC’s effects differ when vaped versus when smoked in a traditional fashion or whether the amount of THC that youth are being exposed to differs with these methods.

Also, the students took the survey in January of this year, which was before the alarming news this summer about serious lung illness and a number of deaths (48, as of this writing) in people using vaping devices. Most of the illnesses occurred in people who had vaped THC. It is not known whether the cause may have been contamination in certain black market vape fluids, or some other factor. The CDC has named vitamin E acetate as a chemical of concern in vape fluids, but it is too soon to rule out other chemicals or device attributes that may also contribute to the illnesses.

At this point, we know very little about the health and safety effects of administering THC at high concentrations, and this applies not only to vaping but also to smoking of concentrated THC products and new edible products and beverages coming on the market in states that have legalized marijuana for adult use. Research is urgently needed to answer these questions. However, marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule 1 substance. Scientists face administrative hurdles when studying Schedule 1 substances, and currently there are no provisions allowing federally funded researchers to study marijuana products coming from the black market or even from dispensaries in states where they are permitted to operate. Resolving these research barriers is an urgent priority.

Daily marijuana use has remained steady among 12th graders, at 6.4 percent, but this number conceals a very significant gender difference. Eight percent of male seniors report using marijuana daily, whereas 4.6 percent of females do. This suggests that a disproportionate percentage of male students may not be performing to their potential because of daily impairment by that drug.

Increased daily marijuana use by younger teens is another worrying trend in this year’s survey results. This year, 4.8 percent of 10th graders reported daily marijuana use, as did 1.3 percent of 8th graders. The brain is very much a work in progress throughout adolescence, and this is especially true at younger ages, so there is increased risk of long-term harms as well as addiction when 8th and 10th graders use any substance, including marijuana.

The continued increase in nicotine vaping by adolescents is also concerning. A quarter of 12th graders reported past-month vaping of nicotine, as did nearly 20 percent of 10th graders and nearly 10 percent of 8th graders. It is not yet leading to increased cigarette use in this age group—one of the many bright spots in this year’s survey is continued downward trends in smoking—but many public health experts worry that vaping will lead to nicotine addiction in many users of these devices.

The number of 12th graders who vape because they say they are “hooked” more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, from 3.6 percent to 8.1 percent. Addiction to nicotine could lead some users to switch to conventional cigarettes—a trajectory already found in some studies. Another noteworthy statistic in the MTF findings is that teens’ second most cited reason for vaping was liking the taste—a strong argument in favor of limiting the flavorings in vape products as a way of limiting these products’ tremendous appeal.

Apart from the real concerns linked to marijuana and nicotine vaping, the general picture painted by the MTF survey continues to be largely encouraging, however. Most illicit drug use continues to decline or hold steady at low levels. Cocaine and methamphetamine use are as low as they have ever been despite increases seen in adults. Nonmedical use of prescription opioids, which had raised worries several years ago in this survey, is also way down. And thankfully, the crisis of heroin use that continues unabated in U.S. adults also does not seem to be affecting high school students—heroin use continues to be very rare among teens surveyed, with past year use among high-school seniors at 0.4 percent. The fact that MTF is a survey of students in school is important to remember, however. It necessarily does not sample from those who have dropped out of school, and thus misses capturing a segment of the youth population for whom drug use is likely more prevalent.

See all the findings of the 2019 MTF survey, our press release, fact sheet and two infographics on vaping and other drug categories. For more information on the increases in marijuana vaping and what they mean, read the research letter published today in JAMA.

The MTF survey is a valuable indicator of substance use trends in the segment of the population most vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of drug exposure. It is also the most “real-time” survey of drug use patterns: Every January, 42,531 students in 396 public and private schools across the nation take an hour or so to complete the MTF questionnaire—increasingly, on tablets rather than on paper—and the results are tabulated and analyzed by the end of that same year. It gives the NIDA-funded researchers at the University of Michigan, currently led by Richard A. Miech, an unprecedented ability to track substance use in real time.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.