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America's Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2016

Illicit Drug Use

The adolescent years can be a critical period for both substance use—including alcohol, tobacco, and illegal and prescription drugs—and the development of substance use disorders. When substance use disorders occur in adolescence, they may affect key developmental and social transitions, and they can interfere with normal brain maturation. Chronic and heavy marijuana use in adolescence, for example, has been shown to lead to a loss of IQ that is not recovered even if the individual quits using in adulthood.56 The abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs can be addictive and puts users at risk of other adverse health effects, including overdose—especially when taken along with other drugs or alcohol. Impaired memory or thinking ability and other problems caused by drug use can derail a young person's social and educational development and hold him or her back in life. Examining illicit drug use among adolescents by race and ethnicity will provide us with a fuller picture of who is at risk.

Figure 18: Percentage of 12th-grade students who reported using illicit drugs in the past 30 days by race and Hispanic origin, 1980–2015
Percentage of 12th-grade students who reported using illicit drugs in the past 30 days by race and Hispanic origin, 1980–2015

NOTE: Use of "any illicit drug" includes any use of marijuana, LSD, other hallucinogens, crack, other cocaine, or heroin, or any use of other prescription narcotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, or tranquilizers not under a doctor's orders. Persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race. Data on race and Hispanic origin are collected separately.

SOURCE: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future Survey.

  • Between 2014 and 2015, illicit drug use in the past 30 days remained stable at 8 percent among 8th-grade students and 24 percent among 12th-grade students. However, among 10th-grade students, illicit drug use declined from 19 percent to 17 percent.
  • Among 12th-graders, 23 percent of both White, non-Hispanic and Hispanic students and 24 percent of Black, non-Hispanic students reported using illicit drugs in the past 30 days in 2015. Among 10th-grade students, the percentages were 16 percent for White, non-Hispanics and 20 percent for both Black, non-Hispanics and Hispanics. Among 8th-grade students, the percentages were 6 percent for White, non-Hispanic students; 9 percent for Black, non-Hispanic students; and 10 percent for Hispanic students.
  • Over the past several decades, 12th grade White non-Hispanics and Hispanics reported similar rates of past month illicit drug use with rates consistently above those reported by Black non-Hispanics. Since 2012, there has been a narrowing of this gap and in 2015 there was no significant difference in the rate of past month illicit drug use reported by White non-Hispanics, Hispanics or Black non-Hispanics.

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56 Meier, M. H., Caspi, A., Ambler, A., Harrington, H. L., Houts, R., Keefe, R. S. E., . . . Moffitt, T. E. (2012). Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(40), E2657–E2664. doi:10.1073/pnas.1206820109