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Results highlight the importance of perceived risk and a sense of belonging for prevention

February 2, 2021 - Substance use among Colorado youth remained steady in the last two years, although rising risk factors – particularly related to marijuana and alcohol -- are cause for concern and attention, according to research released today, February 2, 2021.

The results show a continuing disconnect between perception and reality. Most youth overestimate the percent of their peers using substances. In reality, the vast majority of youth report they are not using any substances.

The research, conducted in early 2020, builds on similar statewide studies conducted on behalf of the nonprofit Rise Above Colorado since 2009 and most recently in 2018. Survey responses from a representative sampling via phone, online and social media of more than 650 youth from around the state were gathered and analyzed by HealthCare Research.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado youth faced many challenges related to substance use and mental health,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who chairs the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force. “Youth now report increased acceptance of using substances as a means to cope with stress, and one in three Colorado youth are struggling with their mental health. The new research demonstrates that we all—parents, educators, civic leaders and youth themselves—must work to increase prevention and education and to develop coping skills and honest conversations that protect our youth.”

“The survey data shows the importance of fostering a sense of belonging, supporting connections with trusted adults, and correcting the overestimation of youth substance use. These proven strategies help youth make healthy decisions and advocate for themselves and their peers,” said Kent MacLennan, executive director of Rise Above Colorado. “We also recognize that these needed supports aren’t equally available. Youth from marginalized groups, such as communities of color and/or the LGBTQ+ community, experience many resulting health inequities which must be addressed.”

Rise Above Colorado (, which empowers teens statewide to live free of drug misuse and addiction, commissioned the survey with support from grants through the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health and the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

Key findings include:

The Perceived Risk of Alcohol and Marijuana Use Hits Record Lows

  • Among Colorado youth ages 12-17, alcohol is the most used substance followed by marijuana. Colorado teens’ perception of the risk of alcohol and marijuana use is at record low levels, and only 49% believe it is “very wrong” for their peers to use such substances.
  • Despite these trends for alcohol and marijuana, the perception of “great risk” stemming from the misuse of prescription opioids has increased by 18% from 2016 to 2020.

A lower perception of risk is of concern because research shows it can increase the likelihood that youth will use substances; a higher perception of risk can deter use.

Connectedness is a Key Factor in Reducing Substance Use

The data indicates that a sense of belonging is an important predictor of youth attitudes and behaviors related to substances.

  • Teens who have a sense of belonging at their school, connect with others outside of their school, or feel completely supported by their friends are significantly less likely to have used substances. As an example, marijuana use among those who feel they belong is less than half that of youth who don’t feel that sense of connection (13% vs. 28% respectively).

The rates at which teens are engaged in conversations about substance use within their families or in school and community settings have been declining, reaching record lows. This is concerning because research shows that conversations between trusted adults and youth are effective at preventing substance use.

Teens Continue to Overestimate How Many of Their Peers Use Substances

No matter the substance, the majority of Colorado teens overestimate the percentage of their peers who are using and the gap of misperception grows as youth transition from middle school to high school.

  • For example, middle school-aged youth estimated that 14% of their peers had used marijuana in the last 30 days, though only 3% of those youth reported actual use during that period.
  • Similarly, high school-aged youth estimated that 38% of their peers had used marijuana in the last 30 days, where only 9% had actually reported use during that time.

The 2020 data show a correlation between teens’ overestimation of peer substance use and their perceived risk and use of these substances. The science of social norming has found that youth who understand that most of their peers are not using substances feel more empowered to not use substances themselves.

This highlights the need for initiatives that show that the vast majority of youth are not using substances while promoting positive and healthy norms and opportunities to support teen well-being. This is the goal of Rise Above Colorado’s Fill Your World With Good statewide youth messaging campaign.

Results Offer Reason for Hope and Concern about Vaping

After alcohol consumption, vaping continues to be the second-most common method for using substances among Colorado youth.

  • Despite this, more than seven out of 10 youth have never used a vaping product and only one in 10 reports using one in the last month. Six in 10 youth see vaping even once or twice as risky and more than eight in 10 think it is at least somewhat wrong for someone their age. Nearly nine out of 10 youth report getting information about the risks of vaping in their school or community.
  • However, there are concerning trends for those youth who have vaped at least once. Their use of all other substances is significantly higher compared to youth who have not vaped, including nearly four times the rate for alcohol use (86% versus 23%) and 15 times the rate for marijuana use (62% versus 4%). Among these youth, more than 74% have used nicotine vape pods or packs like JUUL and 38% have used marijuana or THC oil in their device.

Other Key Indicators

  • One in three youth who have not used marijuana are at least “somewhat curious” to try it, an increase of more than 50% since 2018.
  • More than half of those surveyed reported being directly offered marijuana and alcohol in 2020, compared to only one in three who received direct offers in 2018.
  • One in three youth report having six or more difficult mental health days in a month, an increase from one out of four in 2018. Those youth who report having six-plus difficult mental health days in a month are also significantly more likely to have used alcohol, marijuana, or vaping products.
  • Teens are spending significantly more time on social media than in 2018, and those who spend at least five hours a day on these platforms are also more likely to have more challenging mental health days and more likely to use substances.

The full Rise Above Colorado Youth Survey is available here. Other resources for parents and caregivers can be found here.

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About Rise Above Colorado

Rise Above Colorado is a drug misuse prevention organization that measurably impacts youth perceptions and attitudes about the risks of substance misuse to help youth make empowered, healthy choices. Rise Above Colorado collaborates with teens, educators, community leaders and partners to empower youth to realize their full potential by leading a life free of substance misuse and addiction.

Research shows that 90 percent of addictions start with use in the teenage years. Rise Above Colorado urges increased youth education including science-based information about the developing brain, alternative opportunities to substance use, and the associated risks of using substances during adolescence, as well as skills to cope with stress and resist peer pressure. Youth can find information on these topics at and the organization also offers resources for educators on its website.

Media Contacts:

Kent MacLennan
Rise Above Colorado
(720) 425-4200

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