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Study: Teens who try drugs, alcohol more likely to develop addiction than those who are older

Adolescents and teenagers who experiment with marijuana and prescription drugs are more likely to get hooked on them than young people who try these drugs for the first time when they are college-aged or older, according to a new analysis of federal data (Source: “Teenage Brains May Be Especially Vulnerable to Marijuana and Other Drugs,” New York Times, March 29).

The research suggests that young people may be particularly vulnerable to the intoxicating effects of certain drugs and that early exposure might prime their brains to desire them. The findings have implications for public health policymakers, who in recent years have called for increased screening and preventive measures to reverse a sharp rise in marijuana vaping among teenagers.

The new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, focused on two age groups: adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 and young adults aged 18 to 25. Alcohol was by far the most commonly used substance in both groups: A quarter of adolescents and 80% of young adults said they had used it. About half of young adults said they had tried cannabis or tobacco. But among adolescents, that number was smaller: Roughly 15% said they had experimented with cannabis, and 13% said they had tried tobacco.

Most troubling to the authors of the new study was how many people went on to develop a substance use disorder, indicating that their experimentation had spiraled into an addiction. The researchers found that within a year of first trying marijuana, 11% of adolescents had become addicted to it, compared to 6.4 % of young adults. Even more striking was that within three years of first trying the drug, 20% of adolescents became dependent on it, almost double the number of young adults.