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Susan Parmelee
Susan Parmelee

By Susan Parmelee

Both parents and educational professionals often ask me what substances young people seem to use the most and about current trends. Often, adults who pose this question have a preconceived notion of what the predominant substances are, and not surprisingly, these notions vary. To give the most up-to-date answers, I spent some time reviewing data from the 2017 Monitoring the Future Study out of the University of Michigan.

The Monitoring the Future Study is the leading nationwide study on youth substance use. Over 40,000 students from 360 public and private schools participate in the survey. It can be found on-line at

The study notes some regional differences between parts of the country and between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. South Orange County youth have slightly higher rates for vaping, marijuana and alcohol use. But, overall the county is close to the national averages.

After reading some of the 590 pages, here is what I am concerned about:

  • Thirty-three percent of 12th-grade youth surveyed drank alcohol in the past 30 days, 45 percent of 12th-graders and 25 percent of 10th-graders had been drunk in their lifetime and 20 percent of 12th-graders have been drunk in the past 30 days. This number has been dropping slowly as prevention efforts have been funded through alcohol taxes. However, any teen alcohol use under the age of 18 greatly increases the chance that problems with alcohol and other drugs will stay with this child throughout their life.
  • Forty-five percent of 12th-graders and 31 percent of 10th-graders have used marijuana in their lifetime, with 23 percent and 16 percent respectively having used in the past month. For all three grades surveyed in the last year, use increased by 1.3 percent. This is the only statistically significant increase in use in the survey. The marijuana our youth is using has very high amounts of THC and the statistics on marijuana addiction may become startling as this generation of youth matures.
  • There were 27.8 percent of 12th-graders, 23.9 percent of 10th-graders, and 13.3 percent of eighth-graders who report vaping in the past year. This is the first year that vaping has been included in the survey. One in ten 12th-graders and one in twelve 10th-graders have vaped marijuana oil—typically the THC levels in this “juice” are 85 to 95 percent. Based on campus activity, we expect to see this number trend upward unless we all work to educate young people on the health risks of e-cigs.

Here are some items that counter some of the misconceptions I hear from community members.

  • Use of any type of tobacco products are at all time lows.
  • Youth alcohol use continues to be a downward trend for the past year, past thirty days and binge drinking.
  • Heroin use is below half a percent; youth overwhelmingly stay away from this highly-addictive substance.
  • Cocaine use is 3.9 percent among 12th-graders. Any cocaine use is worrisome, but again this is not a highly used substance among youth under the age of 18.
  • Use of any prescription drugs are under 5 percent and continues to decline, as prescribing regulations improve and prevention efforts increase.

The takeaway from this data is that the current teen perception of adult views on alcohol, marijuana and illicit drug use is key to use prevention efforts. Teens have witnessed the medicalization of marijuana as well as the normalization of recreational marijuana and seem to be viewing this as a safe substance with little consequence for use. Today’s youth are inundated by advertising and promotion of alcohol as part of our culture and are often introduced to drinking in their homes by a sibling or other family member. Tobacco prevention has been very effective, but has now been countered by extremely effective marketing of vaping devices to our teens.

And finally, I would like to stress that most of our youth population chooses to make healthy decisions about what they put into their bodies. However, they need the adults in their lives to continue to discuss these topics as these discussions do have a strong influence over how youth lead their lives.

This is a great opportunity to engage young people in conversation about these activities and what Red Ribbon Week, Oct. 23-31, means to them. Parents have a huge influence on the decisions their child makes.Children whose parents talk to them about the risks of alcohol and other drugs are much less likely to use them. For tips on how to have these discussions, visit and

Susan Parmelee, the usual author of Wellness & Prevention, is a mental health social worker and one of the founders of the Wellness & Prevention Center, San Clemente. She can be reached at

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