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Drug Abuse Statistics

Statisticians analyze numerical information on subjects as varied as medicine, politics and even commercial retail sales – allowing researchers to investigate trends and test new ideas. As the phenomenon of substance abuse stubbornly continues to impose individual, familial and social dysfunction, experts look for the best ways to counter this plague. Statistics inform drug abuse treatment professionals of the populations that are most prone to addiction, the popular drugs of choice among various age groups, rates of relapse after treatment and education levels among abusers. With this information in hand, drug policymakers can design more effective prevention and treatment programs than they might otherwise.

Drug Abuse Statistics and Addiction Research

Drug abuse results in behavioral and biological health issues that affect individuals, families, and communities. Economic estimates indicate consequences from drug abuse (including alcohol, tobacco, prescription, and illicit drugs) approach 20% of our federal budget. Drug use is also highly correlated with crime, making the drug issue one of public health and safety.

Addiction researchers study rates of abuse by demographics like age, gender, geography, drug of abuse, plus a host of other characteristics. By understanding the scope, scale, and other information about addictions, drug policymakers can design more effective prevention and treatment programs.


One group leading the charge to understand drug use in America is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Their stated mission is to “lead the nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction”. Researchers at NIDA collect, analyze, and publish data on drug abuse in the United States, providing a solid statistical description of drug use across a spectrum of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Credit: TEDx Talks

Costs of Substance Abuse

The abuse of tobacco, alcohol, prescription, and illicit drugs is economically taxing to the United States, annually costing approximately $137 billion in direct health care expenses. Cost estimates that include crime and lost work productivity balloon to over $600 billion dollars, equivalent to 17.1% of the U.S. federal budget.1,2

Nationwide Alcohol and Drug Trends

Drug use in America has slightly increased from 2002 to 2012. In 2002, 13.0% of Americans aged 12 or older had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication in the past month. By 2012, that number had increased to 13.2% — an increase of over 4 million Americans. The increase is mostly attributable to the increase in marijuana use: in 2007, 5.8% of Americans used marijuana in the past month; by 2012, the number of past-month marijuana users rose by 4.5 million people to 7.3%. The use of other illicit drugs remained stable over the same period, suggesting a shift in cultural perspective towards marijuana when compared to other substances.

Other nationwide trends include increased use by people 50 years or older (more than doubling from 2002-2012), a decline in underage drinking (28.8% rate in 2002, 24.3% in 2012), and a decline in driving under the influence (14.2% reported driving under the influence in 2002, compared to 11.2% in 2012).3

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Non-medical use and abuse of prescription drugs is a growing health problem in the United States. Annually, more people die from prescribed opioid pain relievers than all illegal drugs combined. Legal access, combined with a culture of implicitly trusting a doctor’s opinion, have led to a sharp increase in emergency medicine visits attributable to prescription drugs. Prescription drug abuse may soon be the largest substance abuse problem in America: ER visits due to prescription drug abuse approximately doubled in the 6 year period from 2004-2009.

Overdoses on prescription drugs are the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the United States. In 2012, there were 33,175 unintentional drug overdose deaths; 53% were linked to pharmaceutical use (illicit and prescribed). 72% of the deaths attributable to pharmaceuticals were related to opioids, indicating the tragic consequences of prescription (and particularly opioid) misuse or abuse.4,5,6

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

Although legal, alcohol is still classified as a drug with a high potential for abuse. Alcohol abuse is one of the most common and costly substance abuse disorders in the United States. Regular use of alcohol is extremely common (71% of Americans drank in the past year), and binge or heavy drinking rates are significant (24.6% and 7.1%). Nearly $223 billion in health care costs and lost productivity are attributable to alcohol use disorders. Almost ¾ of this cost is due to binge drinking, which 24.6% of Americans engage in on a monthly basis. Alcohol-related deaths are the third leading preventable cause of death in the US: nearly 88,000 people die every year from alcohol related causes.7

Driving Under the Influence (DUI statistics)

Alcohol remains the leading factor involved in motor vehicle deaths: in 2011, 9,878 people were killed in vehicle crashes involving alcohol (31% of all vehicle fatalities in the U.S.) This is significantly down in the 10 year period beginning in 2002, which saw 17,419 vehicle deaths attributed to alcohol consumption. This is a continuation of a trend beginning around 1980, when 60% of vehicle fatalities were attributed to alcohol.8

Youth Substance Abuse

Substance abuse by individuals under 18 continues to decline across the board. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a substantial decline in use of alcohol (37.4% of 12th graders tried alcohol in 2014, compared to 43.5% in 2009), including binge drinking (31.5% in 1998, 19.4% in 2014). Cigarette smoking by youth is currently at the lowest rate since the youth drug abuse survey began: only 6.7% of 12th graders in 2014 reported smoking daily, compared to a peak near 25% in 1997.

Illicit drug use by youths is down from a peak of 34.1% in 1997 to 27.2% in 2014, across all substances (except marijuana use, which remained around 20% during the same period). Awareness of harm increased while perceived ease of availability decreased, suggesting that high school students are becoming more aware of the risks while simultaneously having less access to illicit drugs.

While youth use of alcohol and street drugs has declined, it has not been matched by a decline in prescription drug abuse. Rates for misuse of ADHD medication amongst high school seniors remained steady at around 8%. Although usage has remained steady or dropped, teens’ perception of the risks involved with misuse of prescription stimulants indicates they are less concerned with risks involved.

Substance Abuse Treatment

According to SAMHSA, in 2009 approximately 23.5 million Americans needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem. Of these, only 11% received treatment at a special facility, indicating people with drug and alcohol issues are not seeking or receiving the treatment they require.9

Emergency Room Visits

There were nearly 4.6 million drug-related ER visits in 2009. While half were attributed to adverse reactions to pharmaceuticals taken as prescribed, about 45% involved drug abuse. Of the 2.1 million drug-related ER visits:

  • 27.1% involved non-medical use/abuse of pharmaceuticals
  • 21.2% involved illicit drugs
  • 32% involved the use of alcohol (alone or in combination with other drugs)10

The good news: public health efforts appear to have reduced ER visits involving illicit drugs, alcohol, and underage alcohol use. The bad news: ER visits due to misuse or abuse of prescription drugs more than doubled from 2004-2009, making it responsible for more ER visits than all illicit drugs combined.

Visits involving non-medical use of pharmaceuticals has skyrocketed from 627,291 visits in 2004 to 1,244,579 in 2009, an increase of 98.4%. Compared to the encouraging news regarding other areas of substance abuse (significant drop in alcohol related fatalities, decrease in teen drug/alcohol abuse, and other trends identified above), pharmaceutical use/abuse is exploding and looks to quickly become the largest public health issue in the country. The largest increases, by substance: oxycodone (242.2% increase), alprazolam (148.3% increase), and hydrocodone products (124.5% increase). Only ecstasy saw a similar rate of increase in ER visits over the same time period when compared to illicit drugs.

A Snapshot of Historical Drug Trends

2011 brought some progress in the fight against drug abuse. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration presented statistics that demonstrated a substantial dip in drug use among teens in virtually every substance category. This reduction in the use of illegal substances by youth meant police could allocate their enforcement resources to other age groups, while prevention programs could claim credit-and funding-after a successful decade of outreach to young people.
Still, the numbers weren’t universally positive. The use of amphetamines (including misused prescription medication such as Adderall and Ritalin) increased among high school seniors to a level of 8.2 percent, according to NIDA. While that statistic alone could have been influenced by several factors, over-scheduling and intensified academic competition were prime suspects in this rise. Among high school students, OxyContin use for non-medical purposes neither rose nor fell. The leveling off suggests that educational programs might have had some moderate success but the fight was nowhere near finished.


More telling than individual years is evaluating the numbers over a decade. Analyzing DEA arrests throughout this timeframe, we saw a steady downward trend from a high of 39,770 in 2000 to 30,922 in 2010. To accurately understand this pattern, an analyst must account for the DEA’s budget and enforcement practices, as well as the public appetite for illegal drugs. Other variables can affect the decision to take illicit drugs. SAMHSA’s 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health spotlighted drug abuse among those being treated for some form of mental illness. The incidence of drug use in this group was more than double that of the group that was not currently treated for mental illness – 25.8 percent vs. 12.1 percent. This data raises the importance of quality dual diagnosis treatment. In any case, the numbers suggest that mental illness may leave its victims more susceptible to destructive drug use.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America provided statistics of a different sort. The decade ending with 2010 saw a drop in parents who were proactive in communicating an anti-drug message to their children. Slightly more than 30 percent of surveyed parents admitted to avoiding the subject altogether. Further troubling drug prevention advocates were the parents who did not monitor the use of over-the-counter drugs found in the medicine cabinet. Although one in ten teens confessed to using cough syrup to get high, only half the parents were paying attention to the amount consumed.


In the past 30 years, statistical understanding of drug and alcohol abuse has helped make great strides in the prevention and treatment of substance abuse. However, the rise in a prescription drug epidemic combined with a decrease in perceived harm of certain classes of drugs means deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily and are now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Every day in the United States, 114 people die as a result of drug overdose, and another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments (ED) for the misuse or abuse of drugs. Nearly 9 out of 10 poisoning deaths are caused by drugs.

Americans are dying due to drug abuse more frequently than ever before, in part because only 1 in 10 people with a substance abuse problem receives the help they need. If you or someone you love is battling drug or alcohol addiction, don’t become one of these statistics. Get help today. partners with industry-recognized treatment facilities to manage our sponsored help lines. They are available 24/7 to take your call at to help you or a loved one get your life back.


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