On Monday, National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week began, sparking local events across the country in an effort to “shatter the myths” about drugs and alcohol, particularly among teens.
The observance was first launched by scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2010, to promote educational events that communicate the science behind drug abuse and addiction. This year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism joined the team to spread the word about the effects of substance abuse.
In the US, the number of deaths from drug overdoses reached a new peak in 2014. According to a New York Times article published just last week, nearly every county across the nation has seen a jump in overdose deaths, “driven largely by an explosion in addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.” With 47,055 people—or the equivalent of an estimated 125 Americans per day—the article compares this number of deaths to “levels similar to the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak” in the late 1980s. Opioids are involved in more than half of 2014’s recorded overdoses, and it’s not uncommon to see the addictions shifting to younger generations and to more affluent communities.
January’s Cerebrum article, “The Changing Face of Recreational Drug Use,” adds to these figures with new data from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Michael H. Baumann, Ph.D., writes about the new trend in recreational drugs known as “new psychoactive substances” (NPS).
On a global scale, 540 new drugs classified as NPS were identified in 2014 alone, a number that health officials expect to rise. “Compared to traditional drugs of abuse, NPS are cheap, easy to obtain, and not detectable by standard toxicology screens,” Baumann writes. (Better known examples of these synthetic alternatives include “bath salts” and “spice.”) While both the Cerebrum and Times articles are comprised of facts and figures that seem less than hopeful, not all recent studies deliver discouraging results.
Just in time for National Drug & Alcohol Facts week, NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D., shared the results of NIDA’s 2015 “Monitoring the Future” survey, which tracks drug abuse trends among eighth, tenth, and 12th-grade students. Outcomes of the most recent study found dramatic reductions in both legal and illegal drug use for this particular demographic. The survey has been conducted annually since 1975 and asks participants nationwide to report their drug use behaviors across three time periods: lifetime, past year, and past month.
In some instances, the rates of drug use among these age groups “are some of the lowest levels we’ve ever recorded,” Volkow notes. The report also observed that while the US is seeing a significant increase in prescription opioid overdoses, there are substantial decreases in prescription opioid abuse among survey participants.
However, there are still areas of unease, including the rise of synthetic drugs, which Volkow says are “of great concern” because of their addictive effects and toxicity. Rates of marijuana use remain stable (and high), and Volkow predicts that by the end of their high school careers, “44% of teenagers will have been exposed to marijuana.” Summarizing her view of the report, she says:
So yes, there is a lot of very, very good news; but at the same time, we need to take it in the context that the rate of some of these drugs—even tobacco and alcohol—are still unacceptably high … and that, as a country, we have one of the highest rates of drug use among teenagers in the world.
Get involved with raising awareness for this year’s National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week by hosting or participating in local events, contributing to NIDA’s live chat between scientists and the public, and posting ready-made badges to social media platforms. NIDA also provides free materials on drugs and drug abuse that can be accessed year-round.
– Seimi Rurup