Teens Are Choosing Marijuana Over Cigarettes, Alcohol As Their First Drug

By Keri Blakinger 05/21/18

While some are choosing marijuana for their first time, a new survey revealed that a lot of teens have chosen to abstain from substance use.

Teen holding a joint

Young people are putting marijuana first. 

A new national study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) looked at more than 275,000 people over a 10-year period and found that kids are more likely to turn to weed for their first substance experience than they are alcohol, tobacco or harder drugs.

The survey, which pulled data from young people between ages 12 and 21, found that in 2014, nearly 9% of first-time users went straight for weed—up from 4.8% a decade earlier. The shift comes amid a nationwide loosening of marijuana laws and shifting social norms that researchers posited could play a role in the changing trends.

Currently, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use.

At the same time, the percentage of young people who started off with cigarettes decreased from 21% to 9% over that 10-year period. 

“We also observed a significant increase in youth abstaining from substance use altogether, which rose from 36% to 46%, and therefore, it is unclear the degree to which increases in those initiating marijuana first could be due to youth abstaining or delaying cigarettes,” Brian Fairman of NICHD said in a statement

The findings, analyzing figures from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, were published in the journal Prevention Science.

In addition to picking up on patterns around first drug use, researchers also noted differing demographic trends. Those who picked pot first, the study found, were more likely to be black, Native American, multiracial or Hispanic and male. 

"Our findings suggest important targets for public health intervention and prevention of marijuana use, especially among American Indian/Alaska Native and Black youth, who are less likely to have access to treatment or successful treatment outcomes,” Fairman said.

The study also concluded that kids who started off with marijuana were more likely to become heavy pot smokers and be at a higher risk for cannabis use disorder later in life.

“To the degree that these trends continue and greater numbers of youth start with marijuana as their first drug,” Fairman said, “there may be an increasing need for public interventions and treatment services for marijuana-related problems.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.