Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Our Kids Are Using a Lot More Drugs

As drug use goes up, so, too, does the risk of mental health problems.

Key points

  • A new report from NIDA shows that 11 percent of young adults are using cannabis more than 20 times a month.
  • Research on the effects of pot on young people is piecemeal, but the overall trend is toward more mental health problems as use increases.
  • Young adults need to be reminded that using cannabis often puts them at risk for serious mental health problems.

I occasionally bicycle to work, which means I’m moving at just the right pace to catch the smell of marijuana wafting out of car windows as the traffic slowly passes me. Something has changed over the past few years. Where it was once an oddity to smell pot even once during my hour-long commute, now I can be certain to have that experience at least three times during every ride, and oftentimes much more often. It is usually young adults on their way to work, though I’ve also looked to my left and watched lots of 30- and 40-year olds toking up, in personal cars, delivery vans, and even government work vehicles.

New Data on Recreational Drug Use

My small case study on the road is now confirmed by recent data coming from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is showing that recreational drug use is rising in the United States. In 2021, daily marijuana use (which the NIDA defines as using marijuana 20 or more times over the past 30 days) reached the highest levels ever recorded. Among young adults, 43 percent report having used marijuana at least once in the past year, up from 17 percent a decade earlier, while daily use has jumped to an astonishing rate of 11 percent, up from just 6 percent in 2011. In Canada, where the use of marijuana is now legal, my suspicion is that the problem is becoming even worse.

For the record, I’m not against legalized pot or its recreational use, but I am concerned that our move to unrestricted consumption of cannabis is giving users a mistaken belief that cannabis products are relatively harmless or, indeed, even medicinal. While there may be good reason to justify the use of cannabinoids for chronic pain and any number of health conditions, the research also shows that excessive recreational use can pose serious mental health challenges, especially for young people whose brains are still developing.

Relationship With Depression

The problem with much of that research is that it comes in drips and drabs and seldom makes a big enough headline to be convincing for a population that is not inclined to listen to health warnings. But the evidence is there if one goes looking. For example, in a study by a team at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Psychology, they wanted to test two competing hypotheses: The first is that cannabis use contributes to the onset of depressive symptoms; the second is that individuals already experiencing depression use cannabis to alleviate psychological problems. Like so much of the research in the field of addictions, answers to tough questions are always a little "Yes, but...."

In the University of Pittsburgh study, cannabis use was measured among a sample of low-income males between the ages of 17 and 22 years. They found that cannabis use did predict later depression but only for young men who already showed mild depression at the start of the study. Likewise, for young men who were already scoring much higher on depression, their use of cannabis increased only slightly over time, suggesting that full-blown depression may not drive young men to use pot more than they already do. Still, the takeaway here should be that if a young person is starting down the path to depression, they are more vulnerable to becoming a chronic user of cannabis with little hope that the drug will do much to alleviate their symptoms. The drug may even make things worse.

A quick search of the literature suggests that cannabis has consequences for everything from brain development to early psychosis, as well as some benefits for pain management and posttraumatic stress disorder. As murky as the science is, none of it indicates that recreational daily use of marijuana is a good idea for all but a small, small minority of people with severe conditions that require a medical intervention.

That is not, though, how many young adults (and older adults, too) are approaching pot, legal or otherwise. The NIDA statistics should be a warning. We have become far too complacent about a substance that is likely to compromise mental health. In my field of study, resilience, I’ve even heard young adults tell me that the use of pot helps them cope with everyday hassles, becoming a strategy for personal well-being in a chaotic world. I’m not sure I can agree. Just as the dangers of alcohol are widely understood (and becoming even better studied), so, too, should other recreational substances be used cautiously.


National Institute on Drug Abuse (August 22, 2022). Marijuana and hallucinogen use among young adults reached all time high in 2021.…

More from Psychology Today

More from Michael Ungar Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today