After a decade of decline, marijuana use has steadily increased among American youth. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, which assesses drug and alcohol use among American youth, reported substantial increases among eighth, 10th and 12th graders from 1992 through 1997. Increases in marijuana smoking are part of a disturbing national trend in which cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse and the use of cocaine and other drugs are also on the rise.
According to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), marijuana was the most frequently used illicit drug.
- Sixty percent of all drug users report using only marijuana.
- An additional 20 percent report using marijuana and another illicit drug.
- More than 137,564,000 Americans were treated for marijuana abuse in 1994.
The NHSDA also reported that among those using marijuana on 12 or more days during the past year, 58 percent of people had one problem that they related to their marijuana use, 41 percent had two problems and 28 percent had at least three problems that they related to their marijuana use.
The problems associated with marijuana use were greatest among the youngest age groups. Nearly 75 percent of children and teens (12- to 17-year-olds) who used marijuana on 12 or more days in the past year experienced significant problems related to use. Forty-two percent experienced three or more problems, including loss of control over their use.
Why is marijuana use among American teens escalating? Increases in use can be attributed, in part, to cultural influences that minimize the danger or glamourize drug use. Specifically, 41 percent of teens and 53 percent of their parents say that American culture glamourizes the use of illegal drugs.
Survey data regarding parental expectations also are instructive. In a study published in 1996, the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that 65 percent of baby boomer parents who had used marijuana regularly expected their own children to use it, compared with only 29 percent of baby boomer parents who never used marijuana. Consequently, parental attitudes and expectations regarding the risks of drug use are significant contributing factors to the growing acceptance of marijuana use among teens.
Marijuana use among adolescents increased steadily between 1992 and 1997. By 1994, 4 to 5 percent of the general population and 15 to 20 percent of high school seniors had used marijuana at least once a month in the preceding year. In 1996, 13 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 had used marijuana in the preceding year and 77 percent had used it that month. The rising incidence in use among U.S. citizens reported throughout the 1990s appears to be due to the new users among teenagers.
Age itself is one of the most significant variables in understanding marijuana use. Past-year use of marijuana increasesd with age, to a peak prevalence of about 23 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds, before declining to about 44 percent among persons aged 35 and older.
- From age 12 to age 13, the proportion of teens that who say they could buy marijuana if they wanted to more than triples, from 14 percent to 50 percent.
- From age 12 to age 13, the percentage of teens who say they know a student at their school who sells illegal drugs almost triples, from 8 percent to 22 percent.
- From age 12 to age 13, the percentage of teens who say they rely most on their parents’ opinions when making important decisions drops by almost one-third, from 58 percent to 42 percent.
- By age 14 and 15, marijuana use in the past year increases to 16 percent.
- Marijuana smoking among 8th graders increased from 12 percent in 1991 to 22 percent in 1997.
Marijuana use — whether lifetime, past year or current — is most common among males. Among adults, male smoking rates for marijuana are nearly twice those for females. In the total surveyed population, males were about 70 percent more likely than females to have used marijuana in the past year (11 percent versus 6.7, nearly 7 percent). The only exception to the data showing more male smokers of marijuana than females occurs among children and teens. Given that marijuana is by far the most commonly used illicit drug, it is not surprising that gender and age patterns for marijuana are similar to the corresponding patterns for any illicit drug.
Race and Ethnicity
In almost every racial and ethnic subgroup, males are more likely than females to have used marijuana in the past year, except among Native Americans and Hispanics, where there is no significant difference between males and females. Males are more than twice as likely as females to be past-year marijuana users, except among Native Americans (16 percent of females vs. 14 percent of males). For example:
- Hispanics (9.2 percent and 8.9 percent)
- non-Hispanic blacks (7.7, nearly 8 percent of females used marijuana in the past year vs. 14 percent of males who used in the past year)
- non-Hispanic whites (6.7, nearly 7 percent vs. 11 percent).
- Among Asian/Pacific Islanders (2.0, 2 percent vs. 7.7, nearly 8 percent)
- South Americans (4.2, more than 4 percent vs. 13 percent)
In general, males are at least three times as likely as females to be past-year marijuana users. The exception is among Native Americans and Hispanics, where there is no significant difference between males and females (e.g., Native Americans, 16 percent of females vs. 14 percent of males; and Hispanics, 8.9 percent of females vs. 9.2 percent of males).
White males have higher marijuana use than black or Hispanic males. Similarly, white females have higher levels of use than black or Hispanic females.
In 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14.7 percent of students said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days. By 1995, that rate had jumped to 25.3 percent. Use among white students jumped from 15.2 percent to 24.6 percent; among Hispanics, from 14.4 percent to 27.8 percent; and among blacks, from 13.5 percent to 28.8 percent.
In every age group, Puerto Ricans and non-Hispanic whites are relatively high in past-year marijuana use, while Asian or Pacific Islanders, Caribbean inhabitants, Central Americans and Cubans are relatively low. Native Americans are relatively high at ages 12 through 34, but data for Native Americans at age 35 and older are is too sparse to yield a reliable estimate at age 35 and older. Non-Hispanic blacks are relatively high at ages 26 and older (e.g., 5.8, nearly 6 percent among individuals age 35 and older) but about average at younger ages. Mexicans, South Americans and other Hispanics are about average in past-year marijuana use.
Major U.S. metropolitan areas have higher rates of marijuana smoking, but the differences are quite small. However, youth in large and small metropolitan areas are significantly more likely than youths in non-metropolitan areas to report current marijuana use. Furthermore, among adults ages 26 to 34, marijuana use was much more common among those living in large metropolitan areas. Use of marijuana appears to be greatest among residents living in the West and North Central United States.
Education and Employment
Marijuana use is generally equal across all educational levels, except for higher rates of use in the past year among those with the least formal education and lowest rates of use in the past month among college graduates ages 26 to 34. Overall, college graduates report less use than those with some or no college experience.
Mark S. Gold, M.D. contributed to this report.