Rates of Illicit Drug Abuse in the U.S.

Man Igniting Marijuana Joint With Lighter
Carlos Fernandez / EyeEm / Getty Images

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 percent 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

According to the survey, these are the most commonly abused drugs:

  • Marijuana, by 19.8 million people
  • Prescription drugs, 6.5 million nonmedical users.
  • Cocaine, 1.5 million users.
  • Hallucinogens, including Ecstasy, 1.3 million users.
  • Methamphetamine, about 595,000 users.
  • Heroin, about 300,000 users

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 percent of the population aged 18 to 25 reported abusing pain relievers, but that percentage jumped to 4.9 percent in 2006. Nonmedical use of tranquilizers also increased since 2002, from 1.6 percent to 2 percent 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 includes 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 percent 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 then inhalants (which are easily available to young users).

Where Are They Getting the 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 percent got them free from a relative or friend.
  • 19.1 percent got them from just one doctor.
  • 3.9 percent got them from a stranger.
  • 0.1 percent bought them on the Internet.

Of the people who said they got pain relievers from a relative or friend for free, 80.7 percent said the friend or relative got the drugs from just one doctor.

Most Illegal Drug Users Are Employed

Other NSDUH findings included:

  • Of unemployed adults, 18.5 are illicit drug users.
  • Only 8.8 percent of full-time employees are drug users.
  • 9.4 percent of part-time employees are drug users.
  • Most illegal drug users (13.4 million) are employed.
  • 10.2 million people drive under the influence of drugs.

Underage Drinking and Drunk Driving Declines

The 2013 NSDUH survey found that underage drinking has declined as has driving under the influence. Here are other findings of the survey:

  • Underage drinking declined from 28.8 to 22.7 percent since 2002
  • Binge drinkers included 30.2 percent of men and 16.0 percent of women
  • Heavy drinkers included 9.5 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women
  • Drunk drivers dropped from 14.2 to 10.9 percent
  • Smokers declined to 21.3 percent from 26 percent in 2002
  • Teen smokers dropped from 13 to 5.6 percent
  • Alcohol dependence dropped from 7.7 to 6.6 percent
Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • 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.