Unfortunately these gains are not across the board with all substance abuse. There is a reported increase in marijuana use, with most marijuana use starting in adolescence; 78% of the 2.4 million people who began using in the last year were ages 12 to 20. Heroin use is also increasing among teens. According to the SAMSHA report, current heroin use increased from 0.1 percent of the population age 12 and older in 2013 to 0.2 in 2014.
Although the gains in the fight against teen drug abuse are encouraging, more needs to be done. The increases in marijuana and heroin use and the still unacceptably high rate of alcohol use and binge drinking (approximately 40 percent of 12th graders have reported being drunk in the past year) is an on-going concern. Evidence based prevention efforts have proven to be the most effective way to reduce drug use and to support the roughly 90 percent of American youth who do not use illicit drugs. Encouraging peer based support and the promotion of an anti-drug philosophy among youth is the key to continued long term reductions in teen drug use. Education and open dialogue about the negative consequences of substance abuse must be continued and increased.
In addition to prevention, continued efforts to provide evidence based treatment and recovery must be a priority. Youth require age and developmentally specific treatment and the availability of treatment for adolescents is limited. Reports estimate that approximately 1.5 million teenagers meet criteria for a diagnosis of a substance use disorder. Only 7% of those receive treatment for the disorder. With these statistics it is clear that a more aggressive approach to providing treatment needs to be taken.
Drug treatment approaches need to be tailored to meet the developmental needs of teens. Adolescents’ brains are not fully developed, specifically the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates impulse control, reasoning, goal setting and judgment, making teens more prone to thrill seeking, impulsivity and disregard for the potential for negative consequences. There is also evidence that adolescent substance use is a risk factor for on-going substance use and adult dependence, legal issues, lower academic functioning, higher rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and co-occurring mental health problems.