2022 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region

Criminal Justice Research & Clearinghouse  /  Substance Abuse Monitoring  /  2022 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region
July 2023 | Research findings form the Criminal Justice Clearinghouse


Nearly all interviewed juveniles have tried at least one illicit substance

Ninety-six percent (96%) of youth interviewed in 2022 reported ever trying at least one illicit substance and nearly three in five (59%) reported trying all three gateway drugs (i.e., marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco).

Marijuana use amongst interviewed youth remains steady

Of all substances, marijuana had the greatest proportion (93%) of youth who reported ever trying it and it was also the substance youth reported using most recently, with 77% reporting use within the last 30 days. Marijuana was also the first substance most of the youth (71%) reported trying first and 96% of youth reported it was “VERY EASY” or “EASY” to obtain.

The popularity of vaping continues to increase in the interviewed youth

While the proportion of interviewed youth who reported ever smoking tobacco has dropped to a 5 year low of 59%, the proportion of youth who reported vaping has continued to increase from the 76% in 2019 when the question was first asked, to the current 4 year high of 91%.

Prescription and over-the-counter drug usage has increased among interviewed juveniles

Almost half (48%) of youth reported ever abusing prescription or over-the-counter drugs, increasing from the 36% reported in the previous year. Tranquilizers remained the most frequently abused prescription drug, with 31% of youth reporting ever using.

Youth report low participation and interest in drug treatment

While nearly all interviewed youth have tried at least one illicit substance and most begun using substances at a young age, only about one in four (23%) reported ever receiving treatment and most (87%) don’t think they’d need treatment. Of those who did receive treatment, less than half (46%) successfully completed it.

Interviewed youth reported victimization

One in five (20%) interviewed youth reported being approached to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border and just under one in five (16%) had been approached by someone offering to pimp or prostitute them.


This CJ Bulletin - 2022 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region - is the second in a four-part series presenting SAM data collected (from both juveniles and adults) in the 2022 calendar year. This bulletin includes information pertaining to lifetime and recent self-reported drug use, perceived risk and availability of different drugs, characteristics of the youth interviewed, and how these factors may be related to drug use. In addition, all the data (percentages and raw numbers) captured through the juvenile interviews for the past five years (2018-2022) are available online at SANDAG.org/cj.
Historically, this publication has included and discussed the results of urinalysis tests, however, due to COVID-19 protocols and intake procedures at the East Mesa Juvenile Detention facility, urine samples were not collected in the 2022 interviewing cycles for youth[1]. Additionally, urine samples were not collected from youth interviewed at the Achievement Centers as they have not been adjudicated.

How many youths with justice system contact had ever tried illicit substances?

In 2022, almost all (96%) of the youth interviewed reported ever trying an illicit substance, which includes alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, crack, powder cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine (meth), and ecstasy. The majority of youth also reported recent use of at least one of these substances – 89% in the last 12 months and 82% in the last 30 days. Of the youth who reported ever trying one of these substances, the average (mean) number of drugs tried was 2.9.

What were the patterns of substance use among youth interviewed?

Similar to prior years, marijuana (93%) and alcohol (86%) were the most frequently tried substances, followed by tobacco (59%). Eighty-one percent (81%) of the youth also reported binge drinking alcohol (defined as 5 or more drinks on one occasion for males and 4 for females). None of the interviewed youth reported ever trying heroin or inhalants.
NOTE: Cases with missing information not included.

The three drugs considered “gateways” into further substance use for youth include alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. Consistent with previous years, most interviewed youth (59%) report having tried all three gateway drugs. Only 4% had not tried any substance.

For many of these youth, marijuana and alcohol use started first, around the age of 12, followed by crack at 12.7, on average. Binge alcohol use, on average, started a little more than one year after initial alcohol use.

Note: Cases with missing information not included.

Youth were also asked about recent (i.e., past 30 days) drug use for all drugs they reported ever trying. The drug with the greatest percentage of recent use was marijuana, with almost four in five (77%) reporting use within the past 30 days. The next substances used most recently were powder cocaine (60%) and tobacco (55%).

Note: Cases with missing information not included.

In 2007, when the question was first asked, slightly more youth reported that alcohol was the first substance they had ever tried (39%), compared to marijuana (34%). This year, the majority of youth reported marijuana as the first ever tried substance (71%), followed by alcohol (20%), and tobacco (5%). The 2022 rates of the first substance tried varied slightly from last year, but still follow the same trend, demonstrating the continued popularity of marijuana use among youth.

Note: Cases with missing information not included
To gather additional information regarding youth tobacco usage trends, youth were asked a series of questions regarding vaping habits and perceptions.
  • Over nine in ten (91%) of the youth said they had ever vaped and almost three-fourths (73%) of those who had ever vaped reported vaping in the past 30 days. Of those who vaped in the past 30 days, the average (mean) number of days vaped was 16.1 (range 2 to 30).
  • When asked what substances they had vaped, the most common responses were flavored nicotine (82%) and marijuana/THC (78%). In addition, 33% reported vaping non-flavored nicotine.
  • Three-fourths (75%) reported vaping at school.
  • Almost nine in ten (87%) said they preferred vaping to smoking cigarettes and almost half (47%) thought vaping was less harmful than smoking cigarettes.
  • When asked how bad they thought vaping was, 56% of youth who had vaped before thought vaping was “VERY BAD” or “EXTREMELY BAD” compared to 100% of youth who had never vaped before.
  • Around one in four (24%) reported ever getting sick from vaping.

What were youth’s perceptions of how harmful different substances are?

When asked how bad they thought different drugs were for them (on a four-point scale), at least three- fifths or more of youth perceived almost all of the listed substances as being “EXTREMELY BAD” or “VERY BAD,” however, less than one in ten (7%) perceived marijuana as being harmful for the user. The substances youth perceived as most harmful included crack, meth, and heroin, all at 98%. While most of the perceived levels of harm are relatively high, compared to 2021 (not shown), youth perceived all included substances aside from alcohol as being less harmful in 2022.
Note: Cases with missing information not included.

For some drugs, perception of harm differed significantly by whether a youth had previously used it. That is, those who had ever tried the respective drug were less likely to perceive it as very harmful, compared to those who had not. As seen below, the difference in harm perception was significant regarding meth, powder cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, hallucinogens, and marijuana.

Notes: Never used drug (n=4-44) Used drug (n=3-52). Cases with missing information not included.
According to interviewed youth, marijuana (96%) was the substance most often described as “VERY EASY” or “EASY” to obtain[2].
Note: Cases with missing information not included.
When youth who had ever used alcohol were asked how they most recently obtained it, the most common responses included someone 21 years or older gave it to them (32%), they took it from their own home or someone else’s home (30%), they bought it (13%), or someone under 21 gave it to them (11%).

How many youths were using prescription drugs illegally?

Just under half (48%) of surveyed youth reported ever using prescription and/or over-the-counter medication illegally. Compared to the 36% reported in 2021, this year’s rate demonstrates a 12% change in the amount of youth who report illegal prescription/over-the-counter drug use.
The most commonly abused prescription drug[3] was tranquilizers (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Rohypnol/Roachas) (31%) and the most commonly abused prescription painkiller[4] was Percocet (23%). Other prescription drugs youth reported abusing included Codeine (18%), Somas (4%), Dilaudid (2%), and amphetamines (2%), and other painkillers youth abused included OxyContin (13%), fentanyl (11%), and Vicodin (9%). Of those who ever used a specific prescription drug illegally, youth only reported recent use of tranquilizers (24%), Percocet (15%), and Codeine (10%).
Note: Cases with missing information not included.
A higher proportion of youth who had abused prescription drugs said they were “VERY EASY” or “EASY” (58%) to obtain compared to the proportion who reported them as being “VERY DIFFICULT” or “DIFFICULT” to obtain.
Note: Cases with missing information not included.
When asked how they got the prescription drugs, the most common response was that another person gave it to them (83%), with the other person most often being a friend (74%), or acquaintance (32%). In addition, 48% said they bought it and 30% took it from someone (most often a family member, 57%).
Those youth who reported abusing prescription or over-the-counter medication were significantly more likely to have tried other illicit drugs. As seen below, LSD and hallucinogens were the two most frequently tried illicit drugs by youth who abused prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Note: Illegal prescription/over-the-counter drug use (n=27) No illegal use (n=29). Cases with missing information not included.
This effort would not be possible without the cooperation of the San Diego County Sheriff’s and Probation Departments, and the funding support of the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), County of San Diego, and SANDAG member agencies. To learn more about the SAM program and to access other current reports, as well as aggregate data from the juvenile arrestee addendum, please visit this page.

  1. The collection of urine samples will likely resume once the San Diego County Juvenile Hall re-opens. Use caution when comparing this year’s sample to previous years because youth responses were historically only included if they provided a urine sample.
  2. It is important to note that only one youth provided their perception on the ease of obtaining crack. This youth reported crack was “very easy” to obtain. Due to this small sample size, it was not included in the visualization, and it is advised to use caution when interpreting these results.
  3. General prescription drugs in the survey instrument include tranquilizers, anti-depressants, barbiturates, Ketamine, Codeine, Dilaudid, Somas, and amphetamines.
  4. Prescription painkillers in the survey instrument include methadone, Suboxone, Percocet, Vicodin, Demerol, fentanyl, morphine, OxyContin, tramadol, and Darvon.