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A survey of Arizona youth conducted last year showed tobacco use and abuse of prescription medications among teens have declined in La Paz County since 2016. However, the level of use of marijuana among teens has increased, while the level of alcohol use remains about the same.

As for students who don’t use illegal substances, most said they weren’t interested in them, or they knew these substances would harm them and/or their parents would disapprove.

There were some of the findings of the Arizona Youth Survey that was taken in 2020. In presenting the findings to the meeting of the Parker Area Alliance for Community Empowerment coalition Feb. 9, PAACE Executive Director Randy Hartless said they were surprised and pleased a survey had been done. He said they weren’t sure if it would be done because of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

The Feb. 9 meeting was conducted online.

Hartless said the rise in marijuana use is partly due to the perception among young people that it is not as harmful as other substances. He said this is something PAACE needs to counteract.

The AYS was conducted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. They are required under state law (ARS 41-2416) to conduct a survey every two years in order to better understand the needs of and the threats to the state’s youth.

The survey was conducted from February to May in 2020, with additional data gathered from September to November due to the schools being closed for much of the spring semester. The participants were in 8th, 10th and 12th grade. A total of 30,052 students from schools in 13 Arizona counties participated.

In La Paz County, a total of 174 students participated, or roughly 33 percent of all students of that age in the county. This was the highest percentage of any county in the state. PAACE Outreach Coordinator Courtney Kom said this was because the county’s schools wanted to participate in the survey.

“We’re happy to have schools participating in the survey,” she said. “They’re very supportive of what we do.”

The survey results compared figures from the 2016 and 2018 surveys with 2020. For tobacco use, students who said they had used it at least one time were 23 percent in 2016, 20 percent in 2018, and 12 percent in 2020.

The use of alcohol remained about the same over all three surveys, at 38 percent in 2016, 45 percent in 2018, and 46 percent in 2020. Methamphetamine use showed small increases, from 1.2 percent and 2.3 percent in 2016 and 2018 to 3 percent in 2020.

In earlier PAACE meetings, Hartless said that, from his conversations with young people, they understand meth is harmful and is something they should stay away from.

Abuse of prescription medications climbed from 9.8 percent in 2016 to 14 percent in 2018, but declined to 6 percent in 2020.

Marijuana use showed a sharp increase from 27 percent in 2016 to 37 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in 2020. Hartless said this increase was partly due to a growing perception that marijuana is harmless.

“Not surprisingly, marijuana has become more popular as the perception of harm, perception of parental disapproval, and ease of obtaining it –especially since Arizona voters recently approved recreational use of marijuana- has increased at every grade level,” Hartless told the PAACE coalition.  

Kom said the real effects of legalized recreational marijuana on young people will not be seen until the 2022 survey, but added PAACE won’t be waiting for those results before taking action to counter the perception of marijuana being harmless. She said education and awareness are part of the prevention process.

Kom said marijuana is a medication, and it has some good benefits for adults with certain conditions. However, it acts differently with brains that are underdeveloped, like teenagers, and can cause long-term harm to them.

Hartless noted the top three reasons why students said they did not use illegal substances:  84 percent said they were just not interested, 52 percent said it could cause bodily harm, and 49 percent said they knew their parents would disapprove. He said this information could be used to help create messages to young people about drug use.

“So young people are using a common sense approach to avoiding illegal substance abuse, and parents are still a determining factor in substance use avoidance,” Hartless told the PAACE coalition. “The reasons the students give can also be utilized to create strong messages, such as ‘I have better things to do,’ or using ‘bodily harm’ and ‘parent disapproval’ as reasons to not use substances.”

PAACE is the anti-drugs and gangs coalition in La Paz County. Members of the coalition represent service organizations, schools, churches and government entities. They operate the Players’ Ninth Street Youth Center in Parker. They are the sponsors of the annual Red Ribbon Week celebration, which encourages young people to stay away from drugs, violence and gangs.

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