More Americans Using Illicit Drugs

Study Shows Marijuana, Ecstasy Use Have Increased in the U.S.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 17, 2010

Sept. 17, 2010 -- Driven by increases in marijuana smoking, illicit drug use rose in 2009 to 8.7% of the population aged 12 years and older, up slightly from 8% in 2008, according to a new report.

The report also shows that the non-medical use of prescription drugs rose from 2.5% of the population in 2008 to 2.8% in 2009.

According to the report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the estimated number of people who admitted they had used the street drug ecstasy in the past month rose from 555,000 in 2008 to 760,000 in 2009.

Methamphetamine use rose from 314,000 to 502,000 during the same period, according to the SAMHSA report.

Wake-Up Call

Some of the findings are disturbing and should serve as a wake-up call to the nation, says Pamela S. Hyde, JD, administrator of SAMHSA, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Our strategies of the past appear to have stalled out with generation ‘next’,” she says in a news release. “Parents and caregivers, teachers, coaches, faith and community leaders must find credible new ways to communicate with our youth about the dangers of substance abuse.”

The report says overall illicit drug use in the past month among young adults aged 18-25 years increased from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.2% in 2009.

The findings “are disappointing, but not surprising, because eroding attitudes and perceptions of harm about drug use over the past two years have served as warning signs for exactly what we see today,” says Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy.

“Fortunately, this administration’s National Drug Control Strategy, with its focus on prevention, treatment, smart law enforcement and support for those in recovery, highlights the right tools to reduce drug use and its consequences,” he says in the news release.

Steps Needed to Curb Illicit Drug Use

Efforts to curb illicit drug use “must be reinforced and supported by the messages kids get from their parents,” he says. “Past month marijuana use was much less prevalent among youths who perceived strong parental disapproval for trying marijuana or hashish once or twice than among those who did not -- 4.8% versus 31.3% respectively.”

Among the study’s other key findings:

  • Though the rate of overall illicit drug use among young people in 2009 remained below 2002 levels, use by youths aged 12-17 years rose to 10% in 2009, up from 9.3% in 2008. Those percentages compare to use by 11.6% of young people in 2002.
  • The rate of marijuana use among youths aged 12-17 years increased to 7.3% in 2009 after it had leveled off to 6.7% starting in 2006.
  • In 2009, some 10.5 million people aged 12 years and older said they had driven while under the influence of illicit drugs in the past year. The rate was highest among young adults aged 18-25 years, at 12.8%.
  • The level of youths perceiving great risk of harm associated with smoking marijuana once or twice a week dropped from 54.7% in 2007 to 49.3% in 2009, marking the first time since 2002 that less than half of young people perceived great harm from marijuana use.
  • 23.5 million Americans aged 12 years and older need specialized treatment for a substance abuse problem, but only 2.6 million are receiving help.
  • 1.3 million people, or 0.5% of the population aged 12 years and older, used hallucinogens in the month prior to being surveyed, including 760,000, or 0.3%, who had used ecstasy. The number of ecstasy users increased between 2008 and 2009.
  • Non-medical use of prescription-type drugs rose from 2.9% in 2008 to 3.1% in 2009 among young people aged 12-17 years.
  • Illicit drug use increased from 2.7% in 2002 to 6.2% in 2009 among people aged 50 to 59. Researchers say this increase reflects the aging of baby boomers.
  • Unemployed people are more likely to use illicit drugs. Among unemployed adults age 18 and over, 17% were current illicit drug users in 2009, compared to 8% of those employed full-time and 11.5% of those employed part-time. Nearly 23.7% of people aged 12 years and older, or about 60 million people, said they had gone on drinking binges in the past year. Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks on the same occasion, on at least one day in the month prior to the survey.

The report authors say all of the findings weren't bad. For example, cigarette use among people aged 12 years and older has reached a historic low of 23.3%, and the use of cocaine among those aged 12 years and older has declined 30% from 2006 levels.

Show Sources


SAMHSA:"Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings."

News release, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA).

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