Rates of Illicit Drug Abuse in the U.S.

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An estimated 24.6 million people in the United States used some kind of illicit drug in the past 30 days, according to the latest government statistics. About 9.4% of all persons aged 12 and over are involved in the use of illegal drugs or the nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a yearly interview of 67,500 persons sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, provides the most accurate estimates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use in the general U.S. population.

According to the 2013 NSDUH findings, illicit drug use rates have remained stable since 2002 and the use of some drugs has declined, but the survey has shown a recent trend in increasing marijuana use and an alarming increase in the abuse of prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs.

Most Popular Drugs of Abuse

By number of users:

  • Marijuana (19.8 million)
  • Prescription drugs (6.5 million nonmedical users)
  • Cocaine (1.5 million)
  • Hallucinogens, including Ecstasy (1.3 million)
  • Methamphetamine (around 595,000)
  • Heroin (around 300,000)

Increase in Pain Reliever Abuse

While the use of illicit drugs remained the same or even decreased since 2002, the past month use of prescription-type drugs increased significantly, especially the abuse of pain relievers. Of the 6.5 million who reported nonmedical use of prescription drugs, 5.2 million were using painkillers.

In 2002, only 4.1% of the population aged 18 to 25 reported abusing pain relievers, but that percentage jumped to 4.9% in 2006. Nonmedical use of tranquilizers also increased since 2002, from 1.6 to 2% for the same age group.

Marijuana Use Driving the Increase

Overall, the use of illicit drugs in the U.S. has increased from 20.4 million people in 2007 to 24.6 million in 2013. This increase is mainly attributed to the increase in marijuana use from 14.5 million users in 2007 to 19.8 million in 2013.

The NSDUH survey counts all marijuana use as illegal drug use because under federal law. marijuana is illegal throughout the U.S.

The use of cocaine has decreased significantly from an average of 2.4 million users in the years between 2002 and 2007 to an estimated 1.5 million users in 2015.

Methamphetamine use has seen a slight increase in use after an earlier decline. In 2007, an estimated 731,000 people used meth, but by 2007 that number had dropped to 353,000. By 2013, the survey estimated the number of meth users at 595,000.

First-Time Drug Users

According to SAMHSA estimates, 2.8 million people used drugs for the first time in 2013, an average of 7,800 new users per day. Of those new users, 54.1% were under 18 years of age.

The most popular drug of choice for those new teenage users is marijuana, followed by prescription pain killers and inhalants.

Where Are People Getting Drugs?

According to the NSDUH survey, those who used pain relievers nonmedically in the past 12 months got them from the following sources:

  • 55.7% were given them for free by a relative or friend.
  • 19.1% procured them from one doctor.
  • 3.9% got them from a stranger.
  • 0.1% bought them online.

Of the people who said they got pain relievers from a relative or friend for free, 80.7% said the drugs had originally been obtained from just one doctor.

Illegal Drug Use and Employment

The results of the survey indicated that most illegal drug users (13.4 million) are employed. However, only 8.8% of full-time employees are drug users.

Other NSDUH findings indicated that:

  • 9.4% of part-time employees are drug users.
  • Of unemployed adults, 18.5% are illicit drug users.

Underage Drinking and Drunk Driving Declines

The 2013 NSDUH survey found that underage drinking has declined as has driving under the influence. Underage drinking declined from 28.8 to 22.7% since 2002.

Around 10.2 million people drive under the influence of drugs, but drunk driving dropped from 14.2 to 10.9%.

Other key findings from the survey:

  • Teen smokers dropped from 13% to 5.6%
  • Alcohol dependence dropped from 7.7% to 6.6%
  • Smokers declined to 21.3% from 26% in 2002
  • Heavy drinkers included 9.5% of men and 3.3% of women
  • Binge drinkers included 30.2% of men and 16.0% of women
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Article Sources

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  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Nationwide Trends." Revised June 2015
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "New National Survey Reveals Drug Use Down Among Adolescents in U.S." Sept. 6, 2007.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings" Sept. 6, 2007.