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A Decade of American Drug Use

A Decade of American Drug Trends


In the nation’s ongoing drug crisis, grim statistics abound. Each day, approximately 115 Americans die of opioid overdoses. Methamphetamine use is on the rise, reviving a scourge public health officials once thought to be improving. Simultaneously, recent data show overdose deaths involving cocaine increasing for the first time in years. Addressing the country’s drug challenges in a press conference, President Trump marveled at the scale of the crisis confronting his administration. “Never been like this,” he said. “Hundreds of years – never been like this.”

Yet emergencies of this magnitude develop gradually, offering warning signs we recognize only in hindsight. In this project, we studied trends in American drug use between 2004 and 2016, the latest years for which data are available from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. These data shed light on the evolution of the country’s drug epidemic and the demographics most likely to have used illicit substances in recent years. Keep reading to understand the origins of our present crisis and the shifting landscape of American drug use over time.

Our data suggest that slightly fewer than half of Americans aged 12 and older used drugs in 2016 and that this contingent has grown in recent years. Indeed, drug users represented 45.8 percent of this population in 2004 and 48.5 percent in 2016, an 5.7 percent increase. One definite driver of this trend is the aforementioned opioid epidemic, especially as users transition from abusing prescription medicines to illicit alternatives, such as heroin. Recognizing a lucrative opportunity, powerful Mexican cartels have shifted their business models to supply this emerging market with deadly narcotics.


Percentage of Americans Using Illicit Drugs From 2004 to 2016

We’ll explore these broader causes and other substance-specific factors in more detail below. But to better comprehend the reality of drug use nationwide, we’ll need to dispense with the notion that drug use is limited to certain people, such as carefree youth or those living unhealthy lifestyles. To combat the stigmatization of drug abuse and develop appropriate solutions accordingly, we must study how the American drug crisis truly affects a range of demographics.

For Americans between the ages of 18 and 34, rates of drug use remained relatively steady between 2004 and 2016, demonstrating only minor fluctuations. But other age groups witnessed substantial changes over this 12-year period, including an 11.7 percent decline for Americans aged 35 to 49. Minors experienced the most significant reduction, however, with rates of drug use declining 23.5 percent among those aged 12 to 17 years old. Health researchers have celebrated this historic decline in teens getting high, which has been accompanied by an equivalent downturn in binge drinking. They note, however, that adolescents may be embracing other harmful behaviors instead, including vaping.


Total Illicit drug use, by age 2004-2016

If teen drug use has plunged precipitously, older Americans are experiencing precisely the opposite trend. Between 2004 and 2016, the percentage of drug users among those aged 50 and older increased a staggering 59 percent. This trend likely relates to the misuse of prescription drugs, an area of great concern for advocates of the elderly. Because older Americans are more likely to experience chronic pain, doctors may prescribe to them more readily – and monitor their long-term use of painkillers less diligently. Additionally, substance abuse among the elderly is frequently misdiagnosed: Its symptoms resemble that of other mental health issues prevalent in this population, such as dementia and depression.

Few physicians would recommend their patients regularly use illicit substances, although the medical potential of some “street drugs” is the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry. Indeed, rates of drug use among those in “excellent or very good” health were quite low and remained largely flat during the 12-year period studied. Rates of drug use did increase about 10 percent for those in “good” health, however. Perhaps those who are slightly less fastidious about their physical well-being are more willing to experiment.


Percent change in illicit drug use from 2004 to 2016

Those in “fair or poor” health, however, had the highest percentage of drug users and the greatest increase over the years studied. It’s easier to attribute this finding to the debilitating results of drug use, but the truth may be more nuanced. Certainly, illicit substances can have dramatic and destructive effects on the human body. But as noted earlier, chronic pain can be a precipitating factor in opioid addiction – many users seek drugs due to a pre-existing illness or injury. Moreover, Americans have turned to marijuana for relief from symptoms of serious illness, although research evaluating these approaches is ongoing.

Moving past drug use generally, which substances surged in popularity during the period studied? Heroin and marijuana use visibly increased between 2004 and 2016, although on vastly different scales. Some may blame rising rates of cannabis consumption during this period on the legalization of the drug in some states. But the question of whether legalization actually prompts more pot use remains unsettled, with multiple studies arriving at contradictory conclusions. The uptick in heroin use has clearer origins: As prescribing limitations on opioids became more stringent in the late 2000s, many users turned to the street alternative.


Percent of Americans using illicit drugs, by substance and year

Many drugs actually declined in overall popularity during this period as well. Among these were drug scourges that have incited public outcry in decades past, such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine. The public also used PCP at substantially lower rates in 2016 than in 2004, a very positive finding given the drug’s potential to inspire acts of violence. Inhalant use decreased substantially during this time as well, perhaps because they’re primarily used by teenagers, who are using fewer drugs overall.

When we consider trends in use by substance and age range, we find those between 18 and 25 years old using some drugs at rates well above any other age group. Marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy were particularly popular within this age range, which includes the party-intensive college years. Educators have recently expressed concerns about increased marijuana use on campuses nationwide but note that rates remain well below their peak in the 1980s.


Total illicit drug use from 2004 to 2016, by substance and age

[To view additional illicit substances by generation, click here]


By 2016, Americans aged 18 to 25 had been outpaced in heroin and crack cocaine consumption, however. That tragic distinction went to individuals between 26 and 34 years old. This slightly older age group also saw a definite surge in ecstasy use over this period, as well as increased marijuana use. Among teens, conversely, rates of use declined in conjunction with every substance.

Our data demonstrate that patterns of substance use can shift significantly in little more than a decade. Although certain substances may cause new alarm or fade from view temporarily, rates of overall drug use are still troublingly high. Surely, emerging trends in drug use must be assessed and addressed quickly. But regardless of the particular drug-driving public outcry at the moment, the need for effective and affordable treatment remains.

Our team is dedicated to serving that need, both for individuals eager to get help and families hoping to learn more about a loved one’s struggle. No matter the substance being abused, evidence-based treatment can offer a path to long-term sobriety. If you’d like to learn more about the various recovery resources available, explore our content and evaluate your options. Life can be complicated for substance users, but finding help should be simple.

For this project, we compiled data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2004-2016.

“The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) series, formerly titled National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, is a major source of statistical information on the use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco and on mental health issues among members of the U.S. civilian, non-institutional population aged 12 or older. The survey tracks trends in specific substance use and mental illness measures and assesses the consequences of these conditions by examining mental and/or substance use disorders and treatment for these disorders.”

NSDUH data were weighted by each year to account for the American population, and data before 2002 were not comparable to more recent years due to population estimate changes.

By tapping into over a decade of government data, we constructed a broad look at drug use and preferences over the past to view changes in trends.


Fair Use Statement

We welcome your help in spreading this project’s findings. Accordingly, feel free to share our information and images with your own audience for non-commercial purposes. Drug use may be widespread among Americans, but so can the message of hope and recovery.

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