Illegal Drug Use on the Rise in U.S.

Survey Shows an Increase in the Rate of Marijuana Use

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 08, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 8, 2011 -- The use of illicit drugs and the nonmedical use of prescription medications is increasing, and this is largely driven by an increased rate of marijuana use, a survey shows.

The survey on drug use was released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

About 22.6 million Americans aged 12 and older used illicit drugs in 2010. That's nearly 8.9% of the U.S. population.

These rates are similar to those seen in 2009 (8.7%), but higher than in 2008 (8%). In 2010, 17.4 million Americans used marijuana, up from 14.4 million in 2007.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which included about 67,500 people in the U.S. aged 12 and up:

  • More young adults aged 18 to 25 are using illicit drugs, up from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.5% in 2010.
  • Rates of nonmedical use of prescription drugs, hallucinogens, and inhalants are around the same as in 2009.

There were also some glimmers of hope seen in the new survey.

  • The number of current methamphetamine users decreased by roughly half from 2006 to 2010.
  • Cocaine use also declined, from 2.4 million current users in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010.
  • Fewer 12- to 17-year-olds drank alcohol and used tobacco.

Peter Delany, PhD, is the director of SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality in Rockville, Md. He says that the rise in the use of illicit drugs from 2008 to 2010 is of concern, but the survey does show that we are making some dents in the use of tobacco and alcohol use.

"We really need to learn from what we have done with alcohol and tobacco," he says. "We really need to figure out this marijuana problem and understand how to help people not use and/or delay starting to use marijuana."

Rise of Prescription Drug Abuse

The new survey also highlights the growing problem of prescription drug abuse. Fully 55% of people aged 12 and older who had used prescription pain relievers for non-medical reasons in the past year received them from a friend or relative for free. Just 4.4% got the medications from a drug dealer and 0.4% bought them on the Internet.

There is a perception that prescription medications are safe because they are given by a doctor, says Harris Stratyner, PhD, the clinical regional vice president of Caron Treatment Centers. He is based in New York City.

"People think 'if I take it from the medicine cabinet, how bad can it be?'" he says. "They don't realize how addicting these medications are, and before they realize it, they have a problem."

Stratyner is concerned that medical marijuana or the legal use of marijuana to treat certain medical or pain-related conditions may further fuel increases in the use of marijuana -- especially among young people.

"The message we are sending to youth is that medicalized marijuana is safe," he says.

Drug Use Among Baby Boomers

The survey showed an uptick in the use of illicit drugs among adults aged 50 to 59 from 2008 to 2010.

This may become a new battleground in the war on drugs, says Stratyner. These are executives, many of whom may be losing their jobs or profit margins due to the economy, he says. "A lot of people who are out of work and lost money went from not using to using."

Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Services at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., agrees. "We are seeing more people 55 and older seeking treatment. They grew up with drugs and may be facing retirement, health issues, or other losses and returning to drugs -- usually pharmaceuticals."

As far as treatment of substance abuse, there remains a gap between those who need treatment for substance abuse problems and those who actually receive it. About 23.1 million Americans aged 12 or older needed specialized treatment for a substance abuse problem, but only 2.6 million got it, the survey showed.

"This is disturbing," says Goldman. TV shows like Celebrity Rehab and the media coverage of celebrities who seem to go in and out of all sorts of rehabs on a regular basis has been both helpful and hurtful.

"The stigma of getting help has been reduced," Goldman says.

But these shows "aggrandize substance abuse, and some high-profile celebrities in the news make it seem like rehab is a vacation or trip to summer camp," he says. "It is hard work."

Show Sources


Peter Delany, PhD, acting director, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, SAMHSA, Rockville, Md.

Harris Stratyner, PhD, clinical regional vice president, Caron Treatment Centers, New York City.

Bruce Goldman, director, substance abuse services, Zucker Hillside Hospital, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Glen Oaks, N.Y.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: "The National Survey on Drug Use and Health."

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