A nationwide survey of high school students found that New Mexico youths report some of the nation’s highest rates of drug use across a broad range of illegal substances.
It ranked second highest for cocaine and Ecstasy use, fifth highest for methamphetamine and eighth highest for heroin.
The survey also found that one in four New Mexico high school students said they had used marijuana at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey. New Mexico ranked second among U.S. states by that measure.
Health officials and advocates for young addicts said they weren’t surprised by the findings. They point to factors that include ready availability of drugs, a lack of treatment options, and deeply ingrained social behavior in New Mexico.
“Historically in New Mexico, there has been more substance abuse and more negative consequences of substance abuse, than in most other states,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen said.The Youth Risk Behavior Survey quizzes students about 118 health behaviors in areas ranging from drug and alcohol use to sexual behavior and eating habits.
New Mexico students who took the 2015 survey had the second highest rate in the U.S. in responding that they had used cocaine or Ecstasy at least once in their lives.
Nearly 9 percent of New Mexico students said they had used cocaine, and about 8 percent said they had used the drug Ecstasy, or “molly,” a synthetic drug chemically similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens.
More than 4 percent reported using meth at least once, and 3.5 percent said they had used heroin, the survey found.
“The fact that New Mexico has high rates of substance abuse is consistent with our high rates of alcohol-related deaths and drug-overdose deaths,” Landen said.
New Mexico overall has the nation’s highest rate of alcohol-related deaths and the second-highest rate of drug-overdose deaths.
The findings of the survey were not all grim.
Alcohol use among New Mexico high school students continued a long-term decline in 2015. The rate of students who reported binge-drinking behavior has declined by more than half since 2003. Binge drinking is defined as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion within the past 30 days, and is responsible for 90 percent of alcohol use among U.S. youths.
About 15 percent of New Mexico high school students, or fewer than one in seven, reported binge drinking, the 2015 survey found. That’s down from 35 percent in 2003. New Mexico ranked behind 23 other states on the binge-drinking measure in 2015, and below the national average of 17.7 percent.
But the survey indicates that drug use among New Mexico teens remains stubbornly prevalent.
Advocates for addicts point to an abundance of illegal drugs in New Mexico, and a shortage of addiction treatment options.
“There is not good treatment for teens or adults for addiction,” said Dr. Miriam Komaromy, an addiction specialist at University of New Mexico’s Project ECHO.
“Particularly in rural communities, outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, there is so little,” she said. “Once somebody gets engaged in this stuff, it’s so hard to help them.”
Many advocates have sharply criticized the state’s plan to close an adolescent unit at Turquoise Lodge Hospital, a Department of Health-run facility. The unit is scheduled to close on Sunday.
The move will leave New Mexico with no inpatient medical detoxification services for teenagers, said Jennifer Weiss-Burke, executive director of the Serenity Mesa Youth Recovery Center in Albuquerque.
The Department of Health said it is closing the 20-bed unit because it was “underutilized,” with an average census of only five patients a day in fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30. The agency said it plans to use the space to treat adult addicts.
Weiss-Burke also said that drug use is a multigenerational problem in New Mexico, where some youths are first exposed to illegal drugs in their homes.
Heroin “has been around forever, especially in northern New Mexico,” said Weiss-Burke, who lost her 18-year-old son to a heroin overdose in 2011. “In some counties where it has been a generational problem for years, there is no stigma with heroin.”
The survey has found that pot use among high school students has remained at consistent levels for at least a decade, Landen said.
“We’ve noticed over time that marijuana use is relatively common among high school students, and it really hasn’t changed” for a decade, he said.