Alcohol is no longer the most commonly abused drug among American children, as new research reveals a significant shift in substance misuse trends.
The study, which analyzed data spanning two decades and focused on teens and school-aged children seeking medical care after using different substances, found that adolescent cannabis abuse has skyrocketed by an astonishing 245 percent in the US since 2000. This rise has been particularly notable in recent years, as reported in December.
Conversely, rates of alcohol abuse have decreased among young people aged between six and 18 years.
In the year 2000, alcohol topped the concerning list compiled from a US national poisons database, which tracks calls to poison helplines. Now, it has dropped to the third position on the list.
The wave of cannabis decriminalization in the US in recent years, with recreational use now legal in 19 states, has contributed to this shift in substance misuse patterns.
Although the legalization applies only to adults, researchers believe that it has made cannabis more accessible and altered public attitudes toward it.
Emergency physician and medical toxicologist Adrienne Hughes, from the Oregon Health and Science University, emphasized that cases of ethanol (alcohol) abuse used to outnumber marijuana abuse every year from 2000 until 2013.
However, since 2014, marijuana exposure cases have surpassed ethanol cases every year, with an increasing margin each year.
Between 2000 and 2020, a total of 338,727 cases of intentional misuse and abuse of medicines, illicit drugs, and recreational drugs were reported among school-aged children.
Of these cases, nearly 60 percent involved males, and more than 80 percent occurred in young people aged 13 to 18.
The data revealed that almost a third of the cases resulted in “worse than minor clinical outcomes,” and tragically, 0.1 percent of cases (450 young people) ended in fatalities.
Opioid abuse was the primary cause of these deaths, and they were more common in older male teens aged between 16 and 18.
Regarding cannabis, the statistics suggest that the availability of foods containing cannabis products has played a significant role in the rise of abuse cases.
Average monthly call rates for edibles have increased more than those for other forms of cannabis use, such as smoking.
Edible and vaping products are appealing to young people due to their discreet and convenient nature.
Unlike smoking, consuming edibles results in delayed intoxication, potentially leading individuals to consume larger amounts and experience unexpected and unpredictable highs.
While the study mentions other drugs, dextromethorphan found in cough medicine was the most frequently misused or abused substance between 2001 and 2016. However, reported cases peaked in 2006 and have been declining since then.
Misuse of over-the-counter medicines remains a concern for young people as they are more easily accessible than illicit substances.
The study also highlighted high levels of oral antihistamine misuse throughout the study period. Substance misuse and abuse were more common among adolescents than children.
The comprehensive data gathered from this research can be instrumental in designing targeted interventions to combat substance abuse among young people.
Health professionals and government officials can use this information to understand the consequences of decisions like the widespread legalization of cannabis use and work towards reducing substance misuse among the younger population.
The authors of the study stressed the importance of early identification and intervention for problematic substance use, given that early initiation of substance use is a significant predictor of developing a substance use disorder later in life.
Therefore, clinicians responsible for the care of children and adolescents should stay informed about emerging and shifting drug abuse patterns to provide timely support and intervention.