Record Binge Drinking, Cannabis and Psychedelics Use Among Young Adults

    Cannabis and hallucinogen use among young adults in the United States—people 19 to 30 years old—climbed to record highs in 2021, according to the latest edition of the annual US Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. Binge drinking was also up to the highest level yet seen, in patterns recorded amid the easing of pandemic restrictions. Opioid use, though, dropped, even as the opioid-involved overdose crisis remains a tantamount national concern.

    “As the drug landscape shifts over time, this data provides a window into the substances and patterns of use favored by young adults,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funds MTF, in a press statement. “We need to know more about how young adults are using drugs like marijuana and hallucinogens, and the health effects that result from consuming different potencies and forms of these substances. Young adults are in a critical life stage and honing their ability to make informed choices. Understanding how substance use can impact the formative choices in young adulthood is critical to help position the new generations for success.”

    MTF found that 8.1 percent of young adults said they’d used a hallucinogen in the past year. But the biggest recorded jump occurred in 2020, during the early pandemic.

    The MTF research was conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research. The researchers noted that cannabis use—measured over the past year, past month and daily—hit the highest recorded levels since the trends were originally monitored more than 30 years ago, in 1988. The proportion of young adults reporting past-year cannabis use climbed to 42.6 percent, a 34 percent increase since 2016. Past-month cannabis use went up to 28.5 percent, another notable ascent compared to 2016 (when it was 21 percent). Daily cannabis use, counted as use on 20 or more occasions in the past 30 days, also rose, to 10.8 percent (it was 8 percent in 2016). Past-month cannabis vaping, specifically, returned almost to pre-pandemic levels, rising from 11 percent in 2020 to 12.4 percent in 2021.

    Hallucinogen use, which included LSD, MDMA, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin and PCP, also reached an all-time high, MTF found; 8.1 percent of young adults said that they had used a hallucinogen in the past year. But the biggest recorded jump occurred in 2020, during the early pandemic, when prevalence rose to 7.6 percent from 2019s 5.1 percent.

    These findings come in the context of spreading cannabis legalization and a growing acceptance of psychedelics. Recent research has found that legalization does not increase initiation, or first-time cannabis use, among people aged 12 to 20, but that it does seem to do so among people who are old enough to legally access the drug.

    Nicotine vaping, which was only measured for those who have used e-cigarettes at least once in the past year and past month—providing no real useful information about daily or regular use—saw some upticks as well. (Other studies, however, have shown that vaping among youth—those in middle school and high school—has fallen.) Among young adults, e-cigarette use in the past month was 16.1 percent in 2021, a new high that’s triple the figure initially recorded in 2017. However, nicotine vaping in the past 12 months remained below the all-time high (23.6 percent in 2019), at 21.8 percent.

    Not unrelatedly, cigarette smoking in this age group continued its steep decline—just 4.4 percent of young adults reported smoking daily. That figure was 20 percent as recently as 2004.

    “High-intensity” drinking, defined as 10 or more drinks on a single occasion during the past two weeks, hit 13 percent, another all-time high.

    In a finding that will prompt concerns, binge drinking among young adults rose. “High-intensity” drinking, defined as 10 or more drinks on a single occasion during the past two weeks, hit 13 percent, another all-time high—up from 11 percent in 2005, when it was first recorded. Past-month and past-year drinking, however, continued to decline. (The former, for example, fell from 70 percent in 2016 to 66 percent in 2021.)

    Use of heroin (0.2 percent said they had used it in the past year) was lower than any time since 2002. And use of narcotics other than heroin (1.7 percent in the past year) was the lowest ever recorded.

    “One of the best ways we can learn more about drug use and its impact on people is to observe which drugs are appearing, in which populations for how long, and under which contexts,” Dr. Megan Patrick, the principal investigator of the MTF study and a research professor at the University of Michigan, said in a press statement. “Monitoring the Future and similar large-scale surveys on a consistent sample population allows us to assess the effects of ‘natural experiments’ like the pandemic. We can examine how and why drugs are used and highlight critical areas to guide where the research should go next and to inform public health interventions.”



    Photograph by Ted B via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alex was formerly Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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