Survey of youth substance use in Colorado shows mixed results |

Survey of youth substance use in Colorado shows mixed results

A 2018 study commissioned by Rise Above Colorado indicates access, low perceived harm, and use of alcohol remain high among youth in Colorado, while teen use of marijuana remains steady after recreational legalization. The survey further indicates that perceptions of the dangers of misusing prescription drugs has improved since the last study in 2016.
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Newly released research seeks to better understand the attitudes and behaviors surrounding substance use by youth. 

The results of a 2018 survey of Colorado youth, commissioned by Rise Above Colorado — a statewide, nonprofit that empowers teens to live free of drug misuse and addiction — and released Jan. 22, give youth a mixed report card for their perception of the potential harm of substances. At the same time, however, the results offer hope for prevention, experts conclude. 

“While there are concerning challenges, the data show us that we have a great opportunity to help equip our youth with the tools to make good decisions,” Kent MacLennan, executive director of Rise Above Colorado, wrote in a news release. 

Rise Above Colorado commissioned the survey with support from a grant through the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health. 

Survey responses were professionally gathered by HealthCare Research both by telephone and online. Researchers compiled responses from more than 600 youth — a representative sample of the entire state — in a process similar to statewide studies conducted since 2009 and most recently in 2016. 

Perceived risk of substance use

Lower perceptions of risk are of concern, because youth may be more likely to use substances they perceive as low risk, while a higher perception of risk can deter future use, according to Rise Above Colorado. The 2018 survey showed the following:

• Among Colorado youth age 12 to 17, alcohol is the most commonly used substance, followed by marijuana, and teens are decreasingly likely to perceive either substance as risky.

• Perceptions of the risk of using prescription pain relievers to get high increased from 2016, including 65 percent who see great risk in using them once or twice, up 17 points from 2016.

• Significantly more youth recognize prescription pain relievers such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin are as dangerous and addictive as street drugs.

Opportunity for early prevention

The transition from middle to high school is thought to be a time when youth find alcohol and drugs easier to access and more frequently offered. It is also a time youth are more curious about trying drugs. The survey showed the following:

• The largest increase in access to substances occurs between age 14 and 15.

• About 90 percent of addictions begin with use in the teenage years.

Perception vs. reality

The overestimation of prevalence among peers is thought to lead to increased use, while closing the gap between perceived and reported use has been proven to decrease substance use over time. The 2018 survey revealed the following.

• Significantly more middle school youth are forming accurate perceptions of substance use among their peers.

• Overestimation of peer substance use among middle school-aged youth declined by more than 20 percent for all substances except marijuana, which remained stable.

• The vast majority of Colorado high school students (92 percent) overestimate how many of their schoolmates have recently used marijuana, an increase from 2016.


While smoking has been declining, Colorado youth are vaping nicotine at twice the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey suggests the following:

• Colorado youth who smoke tobacco or vape are 10 times as likely to misuse prescription drugs, five times as likely to use marijuana, and more than twice as likely to drink alcohol.

• Colorado teens who vape may be unwittingly using nicotine products.

• Of youth who vape, 78 percent reported using nicotine-free flavoring, but they may be misinformed: Almost all vape products sold in convenience stores — including all the popular JUUL products — contain nicotine, often in high doses.

In response to this emerging issue, Rise Above Colorado has launched an informational webpage about vaping in collaboration with local experts and authored by and for Colorado youth.

Other key indicators

• There was no significant change in youth marijuana use between 2016 and 2018, despite the legalization of recreational marijuana for those age 21 and older in 2014.

• Youth reported marijuana has become easier to access.

• One in four youth said they had six or more difficult mental health days in the previous month — and these teens are significantly more likely to have tried alcohol, marijuana, and prescription pain relievers.

• Compared to 2016, fewer Colorado youth reported they had received substance use education at school.

“The landscape of risks facing Colorado youth is changing,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a news release. “The growth of vaping is an example of how developing threats demand increased youth prevention education. The new research demonstrates that this effort needs to start at earlier ages and requires all of us — parents, educators, civic leaders, and youth themselves — to work to mitigate the risks and reinforce positive factors that protect our youth.”

The complete report is available at

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or

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