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Drug use among adults increased during pandemic, but dropped dramatically among young people, study finds

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Drug use among adults

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Marijuana and other substance use dropped among teens in the first year of the pandemic, according to a new study.

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But adult use of cannabis, illegal drugs and alcohol, including binge drinking, remained the same or increased compared to the two years before Covid-19.

“Substance use declined between 2019 and 2020 among people aged 13 to 20,” wrote first author Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

However, “no consistent declines were observed in older adults except for reductions in tobacco use, and cannabis use increased in adults 25 years and older,” he and its co-authors.

The study analyzed data from the Tobacco and Health Population Assessment Study, which tracks tobacco and other substance use over time among 49,000 American youth and adults.

“A particular strength of this study was the longitudinal design,” said Joseph Palamar, associate professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.

“This design allows us to look at changes among the same people over time, unlike other national studies that compare different groups of people over time,” he said.

Substance abuse dropped among teens aged 13 to 17, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Cannabis use among teens aged 13 and 15 fell by 3.4 percentage points in 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019, while tobacco use fell by around 4 points, according to the study. The use of other illegal or abused prescription drugs also decreased by 2.5 percentage points in this age group.

Marijuana use increased among adults but fell among teenagers, according to the study.

Marijuana use among teens aged 16 and 17 fell 7.3 percentage points in 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019. Tobacco use fell more than 10 points and drug abuse dropped by almost 3 percentage points. Excessive alcohol consumption decreased by 1.6 percentage points in the age group.

“I think availability plays a big role,” Palamar said. “If high school students are separated from their friends for a long time and stuck indoors, they will likely have reduced access to drugs.

“Even if a teenager manages to get weed, it doesn’t mean they had a place away from their parents to smoke it if the whole family was in lockdown,” he added.

Alcohol consumption increased by more than five percentage points (from 60.2% to 65.2%) among adults aged 21 to 24 in 2020 compared to the previous two years. Binge drinking, meanwhile, fell by 2.2 points.

Tobacco use decreased by about 8 percentage points, but the use of marijuana and other illegal or prescription drugs did not change significantly in this age group, according to the study.

Marijuana use increased slightly among adults aged 25 and older, by 1.2 percentage points. Declines in other substance abuse in this age group were not significant, the study authors said.

Tobacco use dropped for all adults, according to the study. The number of young adults aged 18 to 20 who smoke tobacco fell by just over 15 percentage points in 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019. Smoking also fell by about 8 points among adults aged 21 years and older during the same period.

However, a drop in drug use at the start of Covid did not mean the reduction continued as the pandemic continued, said Palamar, who studied drug availability during that time.

“The decrease in consumption during the first months of Covid is significant, but we must bear in mind that the consumption of certain drugs has rebounded,” Palamar said. “For example, we found that seizures of marijuana and methamphetamine declined after the onset of Covid, then rebounded at a much higher rate later in the year.

A a separate survey of people aged 19 to 30 found that they used marijuana and hallucinogens at high rates in 2021. The Monitoring the Future study, published in 2022, found that 11% of people in this age group used marijuana daily in 2021, while 43% said they had used it in the past year.

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