Even as kids were taken out of schools last year due to COVID-19, a new study shows teen drug use only slightly less or at the same pace as they did before social distancing measures were put in place.
Researchers at the University of Michigan and Columbia University found high school seniors reported the ease in which they were able to obtain marijuana, alcohol or nicotine vaping products decreased at record levels, even as drug use had little to no change.
“Even if we close all the schools and disrupt all social interactions, kids are still going to use drugs at about the same level as they did beforehand.”Richard Miech, University of Michigan
Richard Miech, a co-author and research professor at the University of Michigan in the Institute for Social Research, says the study’s results were not what he expected. He thought schools were one of the largest risk factors for teen drug use.
“Schools are where kids are likely to encounter peer pressure to use drugs. Schools are where kids are likely to find peers who can get them drugs, and it’s largely through schools that kids are invited to peer parties where there are opportunities to use drugs,” Miech tells The News Station in an email.
Before social distancing, 86% of the surveyed teens said they could “fairly easily” or “very easily” obtain alcohol, compared to 76% for marijuana and 73% for nicotine vaping.
These levels declined by 24%, 17% and 10%, respectively. Marijuana had only ever decreased by 2% between each consecutive year of study since 1975 compared to a record decline of 1% for alcohol availability.
“Perceived availability of marijuana, alcohol and vaping devices declined at historic rates during the pandemic of 2020,” the researchers write. “Lack of accompanying reductions in prevalence for marijuana and binge drinking demonstrates the substantial challenges facing a supply-side approach to the reduction of adolescent use of these substances.”
This “supply-side approach” toward drug use states that reducing the availability of substances would curb drug use. Social distancing is designed to limit interactions with people, thus disrupting opportunities to obtain drugs or use them unmonitored.
“If successful, these policies would be expected to reduce adolescent substance use,” the report states.
Miech expected to find one of the largest, short-term drops ever in drug use.
“I was somewhat flabbergasted and put the project on the back burner for a couple weeks,” Miech says, needing to think about the survey results more.
“I was somewhat flabbergasted.”Richard Miech, University of Michigan
To an extent, the assumption did hold true, though only for the thought that getting drugs would be harder. The baseline before the pandemic for getting drugs was already high — nearly three-quarters of the teens said they could easily access the drugs.
The researchers do disclose that the survey fails to account for whether teens stockpiled or doubled down efforts to get the same high they felt before the pandemic. Additionally, social distancing increased levels of isolation and loneliness, potentially leading to the perseverance of drug use.
“These results therefore point to the pandemic as a unique opportunity to assess the proposition that decreases in substance availability will lead to decreases in substance use prevalence,” the report reads.
While the pandemic allowed a real world example of what happens when kids are distanced from one another, Miech said the results actually show the supply-side argument faces a very large, uphill battle, which is a problem when trying to reduce teen drug use.
“Even if we close all the schools and disrupt all social interactions, kids are still going to use drugs at about the same level as they did beforehand,” Miech says.