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What Percentage Of People Use Drugs In The United States?

Lori Minor MSN, MHSA, RN

Medically reviewed by

Lori Minor, MHSA, MSN, RN

February 4, 2019

As drugs become more widely available or socially acceptable, corresponding drug abuse is on the rise. This upward trend is the result of the highly addictive nature of many drugs, especially prescription painkillers, which are increasingly abused within the United States.

Recent reports show that 7.1 percent of Americans misused a prescription drug in 2016. This does qualify as abuse. Drug misuse and recreational abuse can lead to addiction, overdose, and even death.

Drug Abuse Doesn’t Always Take The Form You Expect

A person who abuses drugs doesn’t always fulfill the role portrayed in film or TV. Drug addiction isn’t always obvious. But no matter who they are, one thing is certain: as abuse continues, a person’s life will no longer be their own.

In the beginning, it can be easy to hide some signs of abuse, but as the addiction develops, the cracks in a person’s life widen. When this shift occurs, the addiction further engulfs their physical and mental health, job, family life, schooling, and other responsibilities.

At any point in this cycle, a person needs help. The sooner a person receives treatment, the higher their chance of obtaining sobriety, and the lower the risk of dangerous adverse health effects.

What Drugs Are People Abusing?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse presented findings gathered within the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Here are the drugs the survey suggests are most commonly misused and abused within our nation, followed by the percentage they found:

  • Alcohol (65.7 percent)
  • Marijuana (13.5 percent)
  • Pain relievers (4.7 percent)
  • Tranquilizers (2.3 percent)
  • Stimulants (2.0 percent)
  • Cocaine and hallucinogens tied (1.80 percent)
  • MDMA (1.00 percent)
  • Inhalants (0.7 percent)
  • Sedatives, methamphetamine, and LSD tied (0.6 percent)

Though not all these individuals are addicted to the drug or drugs they’re abusing, drug abuse increases the odds that you’ll one day face an addiction.

While these percentages may seem small, when you put them into the context of lives impacted by drug misuse (which is abuse) the impact seems far greater. For instance, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that of the total 119.0 million Americans who were reported to use psychotherapeutic drugs (prescription drugs), 18.9 million people misused them.

They defined misuse as “use in any way not directed by a doctor, including use without a prescription of one’s own; use in greater amounts, more often, or longer than told to take a drug; or use in any other way not directed by a doctor.”


  • 12.5 million individuals abused painkillers in this way
  • 6.1 million abused tranquilizers in this way
  • 5.3 million abused stimulants in this way
  • 1.5 million abused sedatives in this way

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Why Are People Abusing These Drugs?

According to the NSDUH, people misused:

  • Pain relievers “To relieve physical pain” (62.6 percent)
  • Tranquilizers “To relax or relieve tension” (44.9 percent)
  • Stimulants “To help be alert or stay awake, help concentrate, or help study” (26.8, 26.5, and
  • 22.5 percent, respectively)
  • Sedatives “To help with sleep” (71.7 percent)

To prevent the initiation of or continuation of abuse, it’s important to understand that a prescription drug may not be safe even though the drug was prescribed to you and is a medication. In fact, many of these are some of the most addictive drugs used illicitly today, and also some of which are most heavily linked to overdose deaths.

What Percentage Of Americans Use Opioid Painkillers Or Heroin?

While heroin did not show up within the top 10 drugs of abuse within the NSDUH results, it still poses a great cause for concern. Heroin and prescription opioids are fueling one of the largest public health crises our nation has ever known: the opioid epidemic.

The 2016 figures on opioid addiction released by the American Society of Addiction Medicine outline that of the total number of Americans living with a substance use disorder (SUD), nearly:

  • Ten percent had an SUD connected to prescription opioid painkillers.
  • .003 percent had an SUD connected to heroin.

Prescription Polydrug Abuse Is Especially Common

There is substantial research which shows a correlation between prescription opioid painkillers and heroin. Many individuals who start using prescription painkillers eventually transition to heroin because it’s cheaper and more widely available. Individuals who use one of these drugs may use the other, or even use them with other drugs.

An example furnished by SAMHSA explains, “For example, 72.1 percent of past year heroin users and 5.9 percent of past year alcohol users misused pain relievers in the past year.”

The American Family Physician details that “An estimated 80 percent of benzodiazepine abuse is part of polydrug abuse, most commonly with opioids.” The article notes studies which indicate that:

  • “Of heroin users…73 percent used benzodiazepines more often than weekly.”
  • “From 5 percent to as many as 90 percent of methadone users are also regular users of benzodiazepines.”
  • “3 to 41 percent of alcoholic persons report that they abused benzodiazepines at some time, often to modulate intoxication or withdrawal effects.”

Any polydrug abuse is dangerous, but these combinations are especially so. Opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, alcohol, and benzodiazepines are all central nervous system (CNS) depressants. What this means is that each works on this system to slow certain function within your body which sustain life support.

Used together, the power of the CNS depression is so extreme that a person is far more apt to overdose. When this occurs, a person’s breathing, heart, temperature, and blood pressure rates all plummet, which can lead to a coma and death.

Co-Occurring Disorders Increase The Risk Of Abuse And Addiction

When a person has both a drug addiction and a mental illness it is termed a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. Addiction and mental illness can aggravate or even cause the other. This impact is so severe, that NIDA asserts that “people addicted to drugs are roughly twice as likely to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, with the reverse also true.”

The NSDUH also found that in all adults (18 and older) 3.3 percent had a co-occurring disorder. Within treatment, this is an especially prevalent concern and one which requires intensive, individualized care.

What Percentage Of Teens Use Drugs?

When drug abuse starts young, the effects are more long-lasting. NIDA warns that “Adolescents…are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population.”

Those who start abusing drugs at a young age face a heightened risk of addiction later in life and for some drugs, permanent brain damage. According to the 2016 Monitoring the Future Study, past-year drug use for the most frequently abused drugs is as follows:

  1. Alcohol (36.7 percent)
  2. Marijuana/Hashish (26.3 percent)
  3. Amphetamines (5.4 percent)
  4. Tranquilizers (3.5 percent)
  5. An over-the-counter cough and cold medicines: (3.2 percent)
  6. Synthetic marijuana (“K2” or “Spice”) (3.1 percent)
  7. Hallucinogens (2.8 percent)
  8. Inhalants (2.6 percent)
  9. OxyContin (2.1)
  10. Vicodin (1.8)

Within amphetamine abuse, Adderall was used most frequently at 3.9 percent.

Drug abuse and addiction doesn’t mean you have to give up your life. An effective, evidenced-based treatment program can give you your life back.

We Can Help You Get Sober

Don’t be a statistic, unless it’s one of the many people who have reclaimed their lives by the help of a good treatment program. Contact us at today to learn more about these drug rehab programs.

NIDA - National Survey of Drug Use and Health

SAMHSA - Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

ASAM - Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures

American Family Physician - Addiction: Part I. Benzodiazepines—Side Effects, Abuse Risk and Alternatives

NIDA - Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses

NIDA - Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction

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