Fifty-five percent of juveniles arrested and booked in San Diego County in 2011 tested positive for illicit drugs, while 63 percent of adult female and 58 percent of adult male arrestees tested positive, according to an annual study conducted by SANDAG.

Marijuana has eclipsed alcohol as the leading gateway drug for juveniles in the study. One in two youth reported that marijuana was the first substance they ever tried, up from 40 percent in 2010. (In comparison, 28 percent reported that alcohol was the first substance they tried.) Ninety-four percent of youth had tried marijuana, and the average age of first use was 12.6. Only one in four youth who had tried marijuana thought it was bad for them.

Spice, or synthetic marijuana, was previously used by 52 percent of the youth, more than any other substance other than marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco. Youth reported it was almost as easy to get as tobacco.

While the percent of adult arrestees positive for marijuana remained relatively stable, a greater percentage reported it was “very easy” to obtain in 2011 compared to 2010 (75 percent vs. 59 percent).

These findings were detailed in two bulletins: 2011 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region and 2011 Adult Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region. The bulletins are part of an annual study conducted by the SANDAG Criminal Justice Research Division under the regional Substance Abuse Monitoring Program (SAM). SAM is unique in that it provides an objective measure of drug use based on urine samples, in addition to self-reported information from interviews. Both urine samples and interviews were done with the consent of the arrestees. A total of 130 youth were interviewed and 124 of them provided a urine sample. A total of 804 adults were approached to participate in the study, and 776 completed the interview and provided a urine sample.

“Those who abuse drugs also are often involved in other criminal activities, such as shoplifting, vandalism, and driving under the influence,” said SANDAG Director of Criminal Justice Research Dr. Cynthia Burke. “Therefore, it’s important to target prevention and intervention services to at-risk populations to reduce the harm they do to themselves and others.”

Additional findings from the SAM study:

  • Nine percent of juveniles and 17 percent of adults had been approached to transport drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Thirty-seven percent of juveniles and 42 percent of adults reported using prescription drugs illegally.
  • Two-thirds of the youth who had obtained prescription drugs illegally said it was “easy” or “very easy” to do so. Vicodin was the most commonly abused prescription drug.
  • Arrestees between 18 and 24 years of age who had used heroin were significantly more likely than older age groups to say they first used it after getting hooked on prescription-type opiates (37 percent).
  • About half of juveniles reported they had tried ecstasy. One in four had used more than one hallucinogenic drug, and more than three-quarters of users reported ecstasy was “very easy” or “easy” to obtain.
  • Among adults, cocaine/crack use remained down compared to 12 years earlier, with 7 percent of females and 6 percent of males testing positive in 2011, compared to 15 percent and 26 percent in 2000.

One in four adult arrestees reported a previous mental health diagnosis. These individuals also were much more likely to test positive for opiates and multiple drugs and report illicit prescription drug use.