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MetroWest saw a sharp decline in teen Marijuana use during the pandemic. Will it last?
As the availability of recreational marijuana has gone up in MetroWest with the arrival of new dispensaries, use of the drug among teens in the region has fallen dramatically, according to data from the MetroWest Health Foundation.
As of last fall, only 21% of MetroWest high school students had ever used marijuana, down from 31% just three years prior, according to the foundation’s MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey.
The survey included 39,293 middle and high school students across 25 MetroWest communities, per the foundation's 2021 report.
The latest figures are “well below any previously reported in the survey,” according to MHF Senior Program Officer Rebecca Donham.
Since the foundation first began administering the survey in 2006, lifetime marijuana use among high school students had hovered around — and often above — 30%. The decrease from 2018 and 2021 marked the sharpest drop between survey years, per the foundation’s report.
That decline is also in line with national trends reported in the “Monitoring the Future” survey sponsored by The National Institute on Drug Abuse at The National Institutes of Health.
Pandemic may have contributed to lower marijuana use
COVID-19 may have played a role in those lower figures, according to Natick Prevention and Outreach Program Manager Katie Sugarman, who leads the addiction education, prevention and recovery coalition Natick 180.
“I suspect that the earliest phases of the pandemic interrupted some cannabis use among high schoolers since there was less social contact among youth,” she told the Daily News in an email.
Donham concurred: “There’s still a lot of pandemic influence, so there could be some of that, and that seems to be the speculation that’s sort of floating among people who are looking at the data.”
Marijuana use reaches record highs in young adults
The survey results also highlighted some disparities in marijuana use among high school students. For example, youth with disabilities were 5% more likely to report current marijuana use than those without disabilities, and LGBTQ youth were 3% more likely to report current use than their straight, cisgender peers, according to the foundation’s report.
“The other thing that’s interesting is that counterintuitively, perception of harm decreased,” Donham said. “So more students now think that there isn’t harm (from marijuana use), so one might expect — if you follow the logic — that there would be an increase in marijuana use, if more students are saying, ‘No, it’s not that harmful.’”
Youth vaping THC — the main psychoactive compound in marijuana — is one behavior that Natick 180 is keeping an eye on, according to Sugarman.
“While we continue to be concerned about youth vaping, youth use of THC cartridges when vaping raises a number of health issues, especially given the fact that THC concentrations in these cartridges can be very high,” she said.
There are other national trends to consider. For example, the most recent Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that past-month marijuana vaping in young adults — those aged 19 to 30 years old — had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels after a significant decrease in 2020.
The MTF survey also found that past-year marijuana and hallucinogen use in the same age group had reached a historic high since the trends were first monitored in 1988, according to the NIH. Last year, 43% of young adults reported using marijuana in the past year, up from 34% five years prior.
Donham suggested trends in substance use might be tied to young people missing out on key rites of passage during the pandemic.
“What I observe as a parent of two 23-year-olds is that they got sort of really screwed, sort of pandemic-wise, in a sort of key timeframe of their college (years),” she said, adding, “What I see is just this sort of grief over isolation and loss.”
Will MetroWest see a rebound in adolescent marijuana use as it moves out of the pandemic? It's too soon to say, according to Donham and Sugarman.
“Since we’ve only had one administration of the MWAHS since the pandemic began, it is too early to say what the long-term impacts of the pandemic on cannabis use will be,” Sugarman said.
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