Interview with Lloyd Johnston

The Monitoring the Future study (MTF) started 43 years ago, designed and guided by Lloyd Johnston as primary investigator with co-investigators Jerry Bachman and Patrick O’Malley. Annually, MTF gathers and analyses US-national data on adolescent substance use and related factors. A random group of MTF 12th graders is followed into adulthood and surveyed every 2 years to age 29 and every 5 years thereafter, with the oldest cohort currently at age 55.


In a January interview for the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, Johnston talks about long term trends and new developments in substance use.


Generational forgetting, a term coined by the MTF team, may help explain why drug trends come in waves. As new drugs come onto the market and old drugs are reintroduced, young people may not know why they shouldn’t use them. One generation knows about adverse consequences but the next doesn’t.


MTF drew national attention to the large increases in youth tobacco use in the early 1990s. Thanks to major and persistent national efforts to reduce smoking, cigarette use declined and continues to be at low levels in the US.


Perception of risk is often a key indicator of use, more so than perceived availability of a drug. Not in all cases but frequently over the decades, youth seeing a drug as decreasingly harmful has been followed by increases in use.


Marijuana is a complex issue, in part because there isn’t much good research on consequences of use. The perception of risk continues to decline in the absence of evidence-based information on harm and in the presence of increased legalization. Recent analyses of MTF’s longitudinal surveys show links between early marijuana use and later drug use. But generally research on longterm consequences, driving safety, lung health, and other issues is either in its infancy or has not yet been conducted.


Johnston continues his involvement with MTF but has recently passed the primary investigator role to Richard Miech who oversees the youth portion of MTF and John Schulenberg who oversees adult MTF surveys.


The  2017 key findings among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in the US were released to the press in December and will be available online in the Overview publication at the end of January. MTF is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.