Teenagers are more likely than young adults to become addicted to marijuana or prescription drugs within a year after trying them for the first time, according to a new study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The new report – published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA pediatrics – adds to mounting evidence showing adolescents are more vulnerable to substance use disorders than young adults, increasing the need for early screening and drug prevention education, health experts say.
“We know that young people are more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA director and lead author of the study analysis. “Though not everybody who uses a drug will develop addiction, adolescents may develop addiction faster than adults.”
Researchers at NIDA, a part of the National Institutes of Health, analyzed data from the nationally representative National Surveys on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services from 2015 to 2018.
They found 10.7% of teenagers between the age of 12 and 17 developed a cannabis use disorders versus 6.4% of young adults between the age of 18 and 25.
While there may be mixed messaging surrounding marijuana as states begin to decriminalize or legalize recreation use, teenagers can still develop a cannabis use disorder that can impact their future, said Dr. Krishna White, an adolescent medicine physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“You don’t have the same physical addiction, but you can get a psychological addiction (to marijuana),” she said. “And you’re more likely to have it when you’re younger.”
The study also found teens also were more likely than young adults to become addicted to prescription drugs within 12 months:
- 11.2% of teens were addicted to prescribed opioids versus 6.9% young adults
- 13.9% of teens were addicted to prescribed stimulants versus 3.9% of young adults
- 11.2% of teens were addicted to prescribed tranquilizers versus 4.7% of young adults
“Research has shown that brain development continues into a person’s 20s, and that age of drug initiation is a very important risk factor for developing addiction,” said Dr. Emily Einstein, co-author of the study and chief of NIDA’s Science Policy Branch.
The study results don’t surprise White, who says it’s important for parents to know the difference between recreational use and substance abuse.
“There’s a belief among parents that it’s normal to experiment with drugs and alcohol,” she said. “But we know that the younger kids are drinking, using cannabis and using prescription drugs, the riskier it is.”
Although the estimates of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin use among teens were too small to report, approximately one-third of young adults developed a heroin use disorder and one-quarter became addicted to methamphetamines within one year after trying that drug for the first time, the report said.
Alcohol, marijuana and tobacco continue to be the substances most commonly used by teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The agency says substance abuse can affect the growth and development of teens and contribute to developing adult health problems in the future such as heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep disorders.
“This underscores the importance of drug use prevention and screening for substance use or misuse among adolescents and young adults,” Einstein said. “Offering timely treatment and support to young people who need it must be a public health priority.”
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