As Cigarette Smoking Rises, So Does Marijuana Use, Panels Find as They Suggest Ways to Learn More

Developing research designs for projects on adolescent drug use

A working group of experts in the field of substance abuse research met at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in a series of meetings in 1997 to:

  • Examine data on the rise of adolescent drug use in the 1990s.
  • Recommend specific research designs that would strengthen the ability to track and explain trends in adolescent drug abuse and enable early detection of emerging trends.

Key Conclusions

  • During the first meeting in January 1997, the working group examined 23 hypotheses posed as explanations for the increases in adolescent drug use.

    Out of that discussion, most of the panelists agreed on the following statements:

    • An increase in marijuana use in the 1990s has been accompanied by an increase in cigarette use, whereas the earlier generational increase in marijuana use in the late 1970s was accompanied by declining tobacco use.
    • The most likely candidates to explain the upsurge in marijuana use exist at the societal/cultural level. The "most plausible" explanation is a change in the "perceived harmfulness" and the "perceived peer disapproval" of use.
    • It is extremely important to begin to address the question: What causes changes in such societal phenomena as perceived harmfulness and perceived peer disapproval?
    • Marijuana is not perceived by youth as a risky thing to try—only about 10 percent of youth see trying it as very risky. A majority of youth, however, continue to perceive regular (weekly) use as very risky.

Key Recommendations

  • In a second series of meetings, the working group recommended various research approaches to explain the rise in adolescent drug use. Among them:

    • Social Indicator Study. This secondary data analysis approach would examine and explore trends of youth drug use and a variety of individual and aggregate coincidental variables that may be related to the drug use trends.
    • Community-Grounded Qualitative Research. To test the hypotheses generated by the panelists, focus groups would be created in seven cities with youths (ages 12–17) and parents. Key informants representing "youth savvy" individuals (teachers, police, counselors, etc.) would also participate in structured interviews.
    • Regional Epidemiological Listening Posts. These listening posts have been used with some success in the United States to monitor and investigate the abuse of drugs as well as their course of diffusion throughout social networks. Sometimes called "field stations," they have focused on adult drug abusers—typically of heroin—in large coastal urban centers.