Synthetic cannabinoid use in a nationally representative sample of US high school seniors

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015 Apr 1;149:194-202. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.01.044. Epub 2015 Feb 11.


Background: Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as "legal highs" and have similar effects to cannabis (marijuana). Although prevalence of synthetic cannabinoid use is now declining in the US, use has been associated with tens of thousands of poisonings and hospitalizations, particularly among teens. It is important to examine which teens are at highest risk for use of these new, potentially deleterious drugs as they are understudied and continue to emerge.

Methods: Data were analyzed from a nationally representative sample of high school seniors in the Monitoring the Future study (2011-2013; Weighted N = 11,863; modal age: 18). Bivariable and multivariable models were used to delineate correlates of recent (12-month) synthetic cannabinoid use.

Results: Ten percent reported any recent use and 3% reported more frequent use (used ≥ 6 times). Females were at low odds for use and going out 4-7 evenings per week for fun consistently increased odds of use. Black and religious students were at low odds of use until controlling for other drug use, and higher income increased odds of use until controlling for other drug use. Lifetime use of alcohol, cigarettes and other illicit drugs all robustly increased odds of use, but frequency of lifetime marijuana use was the strongest correlate with more frequent use further increasing odds of synthetic cannabinoid use. Only 0.5% of non-marijuana users reported use of synthetic cannabinoids.

Conclusions: This is among the first national studies to delineate correlates of synthetic cannabinoid use. Results can inform national and local efforts to prevent use and adverse consequences resulting from use.

Keywords: Adolescents; Marijuana; Sociodemographics; Synthetic cannabinoids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Cannabinoids* / chemical synthesis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs* / chemical synthesis
  • Male
  • Marijuana Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Students*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult


  • Cannabinoids
  • Illicit Drugs