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Research shows Colorado teens have increased access to drugs and alcohol; making substance use prevention education a priority

DENVER – Jan. 16, 2017Rise Above Colorado’s 2016 Youth Survey found teen usage of most substances – marijuana, prescription painkillers and stimulants and meth – remained stable despite the legalization of marijuana in Colorado in 2012 and increased pressures facing teens. Statewide, the only significant increase since 2013, the last time the survey was conducted, was seen in teen use of alcohol from 33% to 46%.

Alarmingly, the survey results show teens are experimenting with drugs at younger ages - with a significant increase in the percentage of 12-year-olds using drugs. These younger pre-teens also reported increased access, including direct offers from others to use drugs.

Notably, teens’ mental health is a big factor in usage and attitudes toward drugs. The survey results show teens who are experiencing mental health challenges are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. The connection is most significant with alcohol. For teens who have experienced six or more difficult mental health days per month, 66% have used alcohol compared to only 29% among teens who had no difficult days.

Overall drug usage rates among Colorado teens held steady despite decreased perceptions of risk and increased accessibility and curiosity. Stable usage is a positive testament to the overall healthy choices Colorado youth are making, despite increased access and curiosity; however, drug prevention education and access to mental health services remain priorities and are needed at much younger ages.

Key highlights from the 2016 Rise Above Colorado Survey include:

  • Teens’ Mental Health Plays a Role in Drug and Alcohol Usage: The data found a significant relationship between teens’ mental health and their usage and attitudes toward drugs. For example, teens with six or more difficult days per month used alcohol and marijuana at twice the rate of their peers who reported no difficult days and were twice as likely to feel that “experimenting with drugs is simply part of being a teenager and not a big deal.”
  • Teens’ Attitudes and Experiences are Associated with Drug and Alcohol Use: Various risk and protective factors, such as believing schoolwork is meaningful and that drugs can help cope with stress, showed strong relationships to usage. For example, believing schoolwork is meaningful is a protective factor that contributes to lower use of drugs and alcohol. The belief that drugs can help teens manage stress and pressure is associated with higher use.
  • Teens’ Perception of Parental Acceptance of Occasional Drug and Alcohol Use Increased: More teens’ believe their “parents would be fine with [them] smoking marijuana once in a while;” and this perception is associated with increased usage of all other substances.
  • Teens Overestimate Their Peers’ Usage: The survey examined teens’ perception of their peers’ drug and alcohol usage as large gaps between perception and reality have been found to negatively correlate with decisions to use substances. Most teens overestimated their peers’ usage of all substances.

Rise Above Colorado’s Teen Action Council, made up of 20 teens ages 12 to 18 from across the state, illuminated the validity of these findings and the need for prevention efforts. “If we were taught ways to avoid peer pressure and to stand up for ourselves, I think the number of tweens trying drugs would be lower,” said Jaden Newson, an 8th grade student at Sterling Middle School. “If my class was taught all the facts about drugs and ways to avoid being pressured into something, we could be better role models for younger students, especially those struggling with confidence and unaware of all of the effects.”

“While the research results did not show an increase in overall drug use, we know that teen use poses health risks to developing adolescent brains and seeing kids trying drugs at younger ages than we have previously seen is cause for great concern,” said Kent MacLennan, executive director, Rise Above Colorado. “To address this risk, we need to further expand prevention programs and implore educators to start skill-building education efforts even earlier than many have anticipated – during the transition from elementary to middle school as opposed to waiting until the middle to high school transition.”

Given the survey’s findings, research on effective prevention, and it’s Teen Action Council’s direction, Rise Above Colorado will continue to advocate for changing the community conversation to focus on how most Colorado teens are not using substances as an essential component to empowering teens to continue to make healthy choices, along with equipping educators and youth development professionals with science and skill-based tools for prevention. To access free, standards-based resources, go to

To access the full Rise Above Colorado’s 2016 Youth Survey, please visit:

Survey Methodology
Rise Above Colorado, with funding from The Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health, commissioned HealthCare Research, Inc. to conduct a statewide survey examining 12-17 year olds’ attitudes, behaviors, risk and protective factors for substance use. We used a 119-question survey to collect data among Colorado teenagers to understand their attitudes and behaviors surrounding substance use, with a specific focus on methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription drugs. This statewide survey reached 607 Colorado teenagers with 60% of the interviews gathered by telephone (357 respondents) and 40% online (250 respondents), after obtaining the consent of their parents, between March 17 and May 1, 2016. The randomized sample represents the state demographics found in the U.S. 2010 Census. The majority of findings align with the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and the 2016 Monitoring the Future study while going into further depth around risk and protective factors for substance use. The maximum margin of sampling error is +/- 4.0 points for the full sample.

About Rise Above Colorado

Rise Above Colorado is a drug abuse prevention organization providing Colorado’s teens with information, resources and healthy lifestyle alternatives to help them choose a life free of drug addiction. The Rise Above team proactively collaborates with teens, educators, community leaders and partners to deliver school and community educational presentations, face-to-face outreach and uniquely tailored community prevention efforts across Colorado that impact perceptions and attitudes about drug abuse.

Rise Above Colorado recognizes that parents and caregivers are essential to teens’ behavioral health and prevention of misuse and therefore partners with leading organizations and campaigns with this focus. The Colorado Department of Human Services offers Speak Now Colorado, an educational resource for parents and caregivers on how to start age-appropriate conversations about the risks of alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and other drugs among youth. Rise Above Colorado is an affiliate of The Partnership at Drug-Free Kids, a national nonprofit organization that works with parents and other influencers to help them prevent drug and alcohol abuse and get help for teens and young adults who are misusing.

Rise Above Colorado actively engages teens where they are the most – online. #IRiseAbove is a movement changing the conversation about teens in Colorado and the choices they make daily. Rise Above Colorado staff and Teen Action Council post inspirational, passion-filled photos and skill-building content across key social media platforms encouraging teens across the state to share and explore their own passions and inspirations to Rise Above.

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Media Contacts:

Carolann Samuels
GroundFloor Media
(303) 775-9282

Kent MacLennan
Rise Above Colorado
(720) 425-4200

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