Drug Use in America: New Charts Illustrate Nationwide Trends

Benzodiazepine Drugs Tied To Increased Risk of Dementia
Benzodiazepine Drugs Tied To Increased Risk of Dementia
The report also sheds light on the most significant predictors of substance abuse.

Investigators affiliated with Rice University have analyzed data and created charts to trace patterns of drug use and abuse in the United States over more than 40 years. The collection of charts is derived from decades of government survey data. Charts are available on the website of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Although subject to certain limitations, survey approach and method is commonly used in applied social research. In the current report, investigators addressed the inevitable limitations and trade-offs when choosing among different research methods. “For our purposes here, we limit ourselves to saying that whatever their flaws, The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and Monitoring the Future (MTF) are the best surveys we have and the best we are likely to get,” they wrote.

Both NSDUH and MTF launched in the 1970s and include data from face-to-face, annual interviews with approximately 70 000 and 50 000 persons, respectively. “These surveys, which easily qualify as Big Data, provide a rich and revealing picture of drug use in America, and their findings are consistently confirmed by other surveys,” they continued.

The substances included in the present analysis were alcohol, illicit drugs, and nonmedical use of prescription drugs. Among the findings, investigators show that the number of people who develop a diagnosable substance use disorder (SUD), a term describing problematic, repeated drug use that indicates abuse or dependence, has been stable among individuals aged 12 or older between 2002 and 2013. These data call into question the success of the war on drugs that the government has fought since 1971.

In their report, investigators wrote, “A broad and growing consensus among specialists holds that a sizable proportion of SUDs—estimates tend to range between 40% and 60%—can be traced to genetically related vulnerability, including some forms of mental illness.” As we previously reported, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) in humans, for example, reveal a heritability of Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs) of approximately 50%.

The report also sheds light on the most significant predictors of substance abuse, and data indicate that traumatic childhood experience, mental illness, and economic insecurity are more significant predictors than the availability of illicit drugs.

It is important to mention that, on average, almost 70% of SUDs involve alcohol only, also known as AUDs, and an additional 14% involve both alcohol and illicit drugs. Additionally, approximately 30% of the general population present with a lifetime AUD, according to the report.

On the other hand, only 18% of all SUDs, which is less than 4 million people (ie, less than 1.5% of the population 12 and older), involve illicit drugs only. “The national Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) revealed that 81% to 91% of people with a significant marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine disorder had either a current or earlier alcohol disorder,” investigators wrote.

Another crucial finding is with regard to transitioning from (recreational) drug use to abuse or dependence. For example, approximately one half of Americans have used marijuana at some point in their lives, however, fewer than 8% have used it in the past month. Similar patterns are described with regard to heroin (23% of people who try it, develop dependence), cocaine (14% of Americans tried it, but only 0.6% had used it in the past month), and crack (three-quarters of Americans give it up within one year).

It does not come as a surprise that age is closely linked with illicit drug use, with young men between ages of 18 and 20 being at the highest risk. More than 17% of persons aged 18 to 25 had a SUD in 2013. “The peak of SUDs occurs around age 22, shortly after alcohol becomes legal,” investigators noted.

“We are modest in our expectations for sweeping change in federal drug policy, but we are convinced of the need for such change,” investigators concluded in their report.


1. The Brian C. Bennett Drug Charts.

2. “Drugs By The Numbers: The Brian C. Bennett Drug Charts” issue brief.

3. “Rx for U.S. Drug Policy: A New Paradigm,” policy report.