2021 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region

Criminal Justice Research & Clearinghouse  /  Substance Abuse Monitoring  /  2021 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region
October 2022  |  Research findings form the Criminal Justice Clearinghouse


About three in five juveniles tested positive for at least one drug

About three in every five (58%) youth interviewed in detention in 2021 tested positive for at least one substance, which is a slight decrease from the previous year (60%).

Marijuana was the first substance tried by most of the youth interviewed

A majority of youth (74%) reported marijuana as their first tried substance, with use starting around the age of 12, on average. It is important to note that for the first time, youth were interviewed both in custody and at San Diego County Achievement Centers.

Prescription drug usage has decreased dramatically among surveyed juveniles

Around one in three (36%) of youth reported ever abusing prescription drugs. This year, the most frequently abused prescription drug was tranquilizers, with 29% of youth reporting ever using.

Majority of youth have vaped

Eighty-seven percent (87%) of the youth interviewed reported ever vaping. The most common substances vaped included flavored nicotine (93%) and marijuana/THC (80%). About two-thirds (65%) reported vaping at school and 54% thought that vaping was less harmful than smoking cigarettes.

About two in five youth surveyed have had a gun

Around two in every five (44%) youth surveyed reported ever having a gun. Of the youth that reported having a gun, 88% of them reported that it was “VERY EASY” or “EASY” to obtain.


This CJ Bulletin - 2021 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 2021 calendar year. As part of this study, 40 youth from Juvenile Hall were interviewed virtually (1). Additionally, because the number of youths booked into Juvenile Hall has considerably decreased in recent years, 15 additional youth were interviewed at San Diego Achievement Centers (2) as a part of this year’s sampling efforts. Because Achievement Centers are an alternative to youth detention facilities, it is important to note that not all youth have been adjudicated and urine samples were not obtained from these youth. Since this is the first year including youth involved in alternatives to detention in the sample, it is important to note that this year’s sample may differ from samples of prior years.
This research bulletin includes the results of urinalysis trends over time for youth interviewed in detention (3), as well as 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 of the data (percentages and raw numbers) captured through the juvenile interviews and urinalyses for the past five years (2017–2021) are available online here. For questions regarding the project methodology or data, please contact the SANDAG Criminal Justice Research Division at (619) 699-1900.

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

In 2021, almost all (95%) 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 – 87% in the last year and 71% in the last 30 days.

What is the pattern of initiating substance use among youth interviewed?

Similar to prior years, alcohol (91%) and marijuana (89%) were the most frequently tried substances, followed by tobacco (64%). Sixty-four percent (64%) of the youth also reported binge drinking alcohol (defined as 5 or more drinks on one occasion for males and 4 or more for females).

Around two-thirds (62%) of the youth interviewed reported they had tried all three gateway drugs (i.e., alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco), as opposed to just one (7%) or two (25%).

For many of these youth, marijuana use started first, around the age of 12.5, followed by tobacco at 13.0, and alcohol at 13.1, on average. Binge alcohol use, on average, appeared to start less than one year after initial alcohol use.

Note: Cases with missing information not included.

When considering the percentage of youth who had recently (i.e., past 30 days) used a drug of those who had tried it, the greatest percentage was associated with marijuana (56%) and was followed by alcohol (31%) and tobacco (29%).

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%). In 2021, the majority of youth reported marijuana as the first ever tried substance (74%), followed by alcohol (16%), and tobacco (10%).

Note: Cases with missing information not included

In a newer series of questions, youth were asked about their history and perception of vaping.

• Almost nine in ten (87%) of the youth said they had ever vaped and almost two-thirds (63%) 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 17.5 (range 1 to 30).
• When asked what substances they had vaped, the most common responses were flavored nicotine (93%) and marijuana/THC (80%). In addition, 24% reported vaping non-flavored nicotine.
• Around two-thirds (65%) reported vaping at school.
• Over four-fifths (83%) said they preferred vaping to smoking cigarettes and more than half (54%) thought vaping was less harmful than smoking cigarettes.
• When asked how bad they thought vaping was, 61% of youth who had vaped before thought vaping was “VERY BAD” or “EXTREMELY BAD” compared to 83% of youth who had never vaped before.
• Around one in four (23%) said they had ever gotten sick from vaping.

How many youths interviewed at Juvenile Hall tested positive for an illicit substance?

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of juveniles interviewed at Juvenile Hall in 2021 tested positive for an illicit substance – marijuana, meth, cocaine/crack, PCP, and/or opiates – a slight decrease from the 60% reported in 2020. The most common substance juveniles test positive for every year is marijuana, with 55% testing positive in 2021. While this was also a slight decrease from 2020, it is tied for the third highest positive rate in the past 22 years. Also shown in, the percent positive for meth decreased to a new 22-year low at 3%.
Note: Cases with missing information not included. In 2013 and 2014, any drug did not include testing for PCP.
In terms of other drugs, 5% of the youth tested positive for cocaine/crack (an increase from the 2% in 2020) and none were positive for opiates (compared to 2% that were positive in 2020). In 2021, 5% tested positive for multiple illicit drugs, and both of these youth who tested positive for multiple substances were positive for marijuana and cocaine.

What are youth’s perception of how harmful different substances are?

When asked how bad they thought different drugs were for them (on a four-point scale), there was more perceived harm than in previous years, with three-fifths or more of youth perceiving a majority of the listed substances as being “EXTREMELY BAD” or “VERY BAD.” Only half (49%) of the surveyed youth thought alcohol was harmful and only around one in ten (11%) perceived marijuana as being harmful for the user.
Note: Cases with missing information not included.

For some drugs, perception of harm differed significantly by whether a youth had previously used it, including cocaine, hallucinogens, and marijuana. That is, those who had ever tried a drug were less likely to perceive it was harmful, compared to those who had not.

Notes: Never used drug (n=5-40) Used drug (n=10-49). Cases with missing information not included.
According to the youth, marijuana (88%) and tobacco (86%), the two substances tried at the earliest ages, on average, were most likely to be described as “VERY EASY” or “EASY” to obtain.
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 (28%), they bought it (17%), they had someone else buy it for them (13%), they took it from their own home or someone else’s home (13%), someone under 21 gave it to them (9%), or they took it from a store (9%)

How many youths are using prescription drugs illegally?

Just over one-third (36%) of surveyed youth reported ever using prescription and/or over-the-counter medication illegally.

Of all prescription painkillers, Percocet (16%), fentanyl (7%), OxyContin (6%), and Vicodin (4%) were the only painkillers youth ever abused. In addition to prescription painkillers, other abused prescription drugs included tranquilizers (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Rohypnol/Roachas) (29%), Somas (2%), and amphetamines (2%). [4]

Note: Cases with missing information not included.

Compared to the previous year, the youth interviewed in 2021 reported abusing prescription drugs at an exponentially lower rate (54% reported in 2020). This decrease can even be seen in the highest abused prescription drug of 2021, tranquilizers, which decreased from 34% in 2020 to 29% in 2021. Other prescription drugs (i.e., anti-depressants, barbiturates, Codeine, Darvon, Demerol, Dilaudid, Ketamine, methadone, morphine, tramadol, and suboxone) were not included as 0% of youth reported ever abusing them.

Of those who ever used a specific prescription drug illegally, youth only reported recent use of Percocet (20%) and tranquilizers (18%). Almost equal proportions of youth who had abused prescription drugs said they were “VERY EASY” or “EASY” (53%) or “VERY DIFFICULT” or “DIFFICULT” (47%) to obtain.
Note: Cases with missing information not included. Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding.

When asked how they got the prescription drugs, the most common response was that another person gave it to them (88%), with the other person most often being a friend (64%), or acquaintance (43%). In addition, 69% said they bought it and 25% took it from someone (most often an acquaintance, 50%).

Those youth who reported abusing prescription or over-the-counter medication were significantly more likely to have tried marijuana, tobacco, powder cocaine, and meth.
Note: Illegal prescription/over-the-counter drug use (n=20) No illegal use (n=35). Cases with missing information not included.
View and download the full report

  1. While these interviews are usually conducted in the Juvenile Hall facility, due to COVID-19, these interviews were conducted through virtual meeting platforms and over-the-phone.
  2. Achievement Centers were launched by the County of San Diego in Fiscal Year 2020. The purpose of Achievement Centers is to provide at-risk youth and youth on probation after-school programming that provides opportunities to engage in prosocial and rehabilitation services in the community and divert them from detention.
  3. One hundred percent (100%) of the interviewed youth from Juvenile Hall provided a urine sample for drug testing purposes (26 males and 14 females).
  4. Prescription painkillers include methadone, Suboxone, Dilaudid, Percocet, Vicodin, Demerol, fentanyl, morphine, OxyContin, tramadol, and Darvon