Rates of Illicit Drug Abuse in the U.S.

Man Igniting Marijuana Joint With Lighter
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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 2018 NSDUH findings, illicit drug use rates have increased, particularly due to a recent trend in increasing marijuana use and an increase in the abuse of prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs.

In 2018, NSDUH respondents reported which drugs, if any, they had used in the 30 days prior to the interview. Based on those findings, the government estimates that:

  • 31.9 million people aged 12 or older in the United States (11.7%) are "current users" of some kind of illicit drug.
  • Just over 50% of respondents had used illegal drugs or done nonmedical use of prescription drugs in their lifetime.

Most Popular Drugs of Abuse in 2018

In addition to past-month usage, the 2018 NSDUH also looked at how many people used drugs at any point in the prior year. By number of users aged 12 and older:

  • Illicit drugs combined (53.2 million)
  • Marijuana (43.5 million)
  • Misuse of prescription pain relievers (9.9 million)
  • Misuse of prescription tranquilizers and sedatives (6.4 million)
  • Hallucinogens, including ecstasy (5.6 million)
  • Cocaine (5.5 million)
  • Misuse of prescription stimulants (5.1 million)
  • Inhalants (2 million)
  • Methamphetamine (1.9 million)
  • Heroin (808,000)

Increase in Pain Reliever Misuse

According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the use of illicit drugs in general has increased since 2015. However, the past-month use of prescription-type pain relievers decreased by 3.6% of the population.

Of the 16.3 million who reported nonmedical use of at least one prescription drug, 9.9 million were using painkillers. However, these numbers are far higher than they were in 2002.

In 2002, only 4.1% of the population aged 18 to 25 reported misusing 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. increased from 20.4 million people in 2007 to 24.6 million in 2013. However, not all illicit drugs saw an increase.

  • Cocaine: The use of cocaine 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.
  • Marijuana: The overall increase is mainly attributed to the increase in marijuana use from 14.5 million users in 2007 to 19.8 million in 2013.
  • Meth: 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.

The NSDUH survey counts all marijuana use as illegal drug use because, under federal law, marijuana is illegal throughout the United States.

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 painkillers 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.

Declines in Underage Drinking/Drunk Driving

Surveys also suggest that some prevalence rates have declined in recent years. 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:

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

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published August 2019.

  2. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States:Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published August 2019.

Additional Reading
  • 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.