National Survey Shows Decrease In Teen Drug Usage In 2021

Every year since 1975, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) surveys the nation’s young people on their drug use. The questionnaire targets grades 8, 10, and 12, and for the first time since its introduction 46 years ago, there is a decrease in teen drug usage.

The survey, called “Monitoring the Future,” measures such drugs as alcohol, Marijuana, Nicotine (through vaping) and any other illicit substances. Conducted by a team at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the survey is self-reported over various increments of time: 30 days, 12 months, and a lifetime, and students are asked about associated perceptions of harm, disapproval of use, and speculated availability of drugs. The data is collected from mid-winter to early summer and reported in the same year, giving the most accurate, timely snapshot of young people’s overall relationship with drug use.

Teen Drug Usage Statistics

The numbers don’t lie; here is a screenshot depicting the noticeable decline in usage among teens in the monitored substances:


8th graders: 17.2% in 2021 from 20.5% in 2020 (3.3% decline)

10th graders: 28.5% in 2021 from 40.7% in 2020 (12.2% decline)

12th graders: 46.5% in 2021 from 55.3% in 2020 (8.8% decline)


8th graders: 7.1% in 2021 from 11.4% in 2020 (4.3% decline)

10th graders: 17.3% in 2021 from 28.0% in 2020 (10.7% decline)

12th graders: 30.5% in 2021 from 35.2% in 2020 (4.7% decline)


8th graders: 12.1% in 2021 from 16.6% in 2020 (4.5% decline)

10th graders: 20% in 2021 from 31% in 2020 (11% decline)

12th graders: 27% in 2021 from 35% in 2020 (8% decline)

Illicit drugs (other than Marijuana):

8th graders: 4.6% in 2021 from 7.7% in 2020 (3.1% decline)

10th graders: 5.1% in 2021 from 8.6% in 2020 (3.5% decline)

12th graders: 7.2% in 2021 from 11.4% in 2020 (4.2% decline)

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Mental Health And Pandemic-Related Hypotheses

In addition to teen’s use and perception of drugs, the study also investigates the overall mental health of the participants, specifically regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Across all age groups, students reported increases in feelings of boredom, anxiety, depression, loneliness, worry, difficulty sleeping, and other negative mental health indicators since the pandemic started back in March of 2020. Principle investigator of the study and professor of research at University of Michigan, Richard Miech, hypothesized, “These declines are an unintended consequence of the pandemic. Among the many disruptions adolescents have experienced as a result of the pandemic are disruptions in their ability to get drugs, disruptions in their ability to use drugs outside of parental supervision, and disruptions in peer groups that encourage drug use.”

There are many possible reasons for the decline that the director of NIDA, Nora D. Volkow, MD called “unprecedented” in the wake of the global health crisis:

These data are unprecedented and highlight one unexpected potential consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused seismic shifts in the day-to-day lives of adolescents. Moving forward, it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use—whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure, or other factors—and harness them to inform future prevention efforts.

- Dr. Nora D. Volkow, MD, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021

Other researchers are saying that a possible explanation for the decrease in the statistics is that there is a decently sized portion of adolescents who have not used drugs in the last year, but otherwise might have if not for the very obscure circumstances and stipulations brought forth by the pandemic. These teenagers may have been spared some of the psycho-neural experiences and changes that often increase susceptibility for future drug use and potential addiction, but as the research is still so new, there is no way to tell at this time. In a separate study evaluating 10 to 14-year olds’ drug use throughout the pandemic, Dr. Volkow said, “Recognizing how the stress of the past year translates into substance use has profound implications into adulthood, because drinking and drug use at these ages are associated with a substantially higher risk of long-term alcohol and drug use disorders and related harms.”

Evidence-Based Prevention To Maintain Research Results

Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy commented: “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to using data and evidence to guide our prevention efforts so it is important to identify all the factors that may have led to this decrease in substance use to better inform prevention strategies moving forward. The Administration is investing historic levels of funding for evidence-based prevention programs because delaying substance use until after adolescence significantly reduces the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.”

Hopefully, through awareness, research-aided prevention, and funding, the trends continue the crawl down in this manner. Only time will tell for sure.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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