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Why Is Drug Use in America on the Rise?

A pile of pills of various shapes and colors, contained in plastic and foil packaging.

Overall drug use and alcohol consumption in the United States are on the rise. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), almost 32 million people (11.7% of the population) were actively using drugs as of 2018, with marijuana, prescription stimulants, and methamphetamines as the most popular drugs of choice. Add alcohol and tobacco use, and more than 60% of the US population was actively using some form of substance.

Drug use can affect the users (especially those who are struggling with addiction), as well as their loved ones and society as a whole. Drug use costs the country more than $740 billion each year in lost work, health care, and drug-related crimes.

Many factors have contributed to the rise in drug use in America. The drug problem is not related to youth or poverty. People of all ages and income levels are using drugs and struggling with some form of substance use disorder. And drug use is becoming more accepted in society. Turn on the television or listen to music and you’re likely to see or hear references about drinking, smoking, or some type of drug use. To better avoid and mitigate the consequences, as well as to seek help with addiction for a loved one, it’s important to understand why drug use is on the rise. Here’s an in-depth look at the problem and the factors that lead to drug use.

Rates of drug use in the US

Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, prescription stimulants, and methamphetamines are the most widely used drugs in the country. Here’s a closer look at US drug use rates, and which substances are most commonly used, according to NCDAS research:

  • Alcohol: 139.8 million people
  • Tobacco: 58.8 million people
  • Marijuana: 2.9 million people
  • Prescription stimulants: 2.9 million people
  • Methamphetamines: 2.2 million people
  • Prescription painkillers: 1.9 million people
  • Heroin: 957,000 people
  • Cocaine: 638,000 people
  • Prescription sedatives: 319,000 people

Who is using drugs?

People of all demographics choose to use substances, but some groups may be more likely to use drugs than others, as well as being more prone to drug addiction. Here is a summary of published data that shows the groups most likely to use, the types of substances they prefer, and why they’re more likely to indulge.

Baby Boomers

Drug use has risen sharply among people 50 or older. It may come as a surprise to many, who may imagine drug use as a problem among younger generations. Alcohol is the main substance causing hospital and rehab admissions in older individuals, but other drugs are also responsible for the increase in treatment required.

Admissions for treatment or marijuana and heroin use have more than doubled in the past 10 years. But the most dramatic increases in hospitalizations were from prescription drugs and cocaine, the latter of which almost quadrupled admission rates to a treatment center.

Women

Women are more likely to suffer from disorders related to use of alcohol, opioids, cannabis, stimulants, and nicotine. A variety of causes are responsible, such as influence from their partners and a higher propensity for mood and anxiety disorders. Anxiety or stress-related disorders may lead some women to become addicted to substances as they seek to self-medicate or escape from the stressors that contribute to their anxieties.

College students

The overuse of alcohol in college is well documented and widely known. But college students are turning to other substances as well. The social nature of college life and the party habits many develop after they leave home for the first time in their life may lead to increased use of more than alcohol. Nicotine from cigarettes and drugs such as marijuana and prescription medications are other substances students tend to experiment with during their college years.

Reasons for increased drug use

There is no single cause for the increasing rates of drug usage in the United States. People have varying reasons for why they turn to drug use, as well as when and why they decide to seek treatment. The most likely demographics to use drugs include teenagers, young adults, Baby Boomers, and overall men more than women. But there are some factors that may influence people, in general, to experiment with or use drugs. Some of the factors include:

Changing viewpoints

Drugs are becoming more normalized in larger American culture. Drug use is commonly seen in movies, music videos, social media, and media in general. Drinking and drug use are often portrayed as an acceptable way to socialize or a normal part of everyday life. A growing number of celebrities and role models are open about their marijuana use or preferences for other substances, potentially influencing younger people.

Stress

Young people and adults who don’t have strong coping skills to safeguard their mental health may turn to substance use to deal with the stressors around them. Military service members and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning home may self-medicate with drugs.

Legalization

The legalization of recreational marijuana (cannabis) in many states has made drug use more openly acceptable. Thus, many do not see cannabis as an addictive or harmful substance. However, some people consider marijuana is to be a gateway drug. They fear that increased use of cannabis (legal or illegal) will lead to the increased use of other drugs.

The opioid epidemic

Opioids activate certain parts of the brain and are extremely addictive. Continues addictive use often related to a switch from seeking pleasure to avoiding the discomfort of withdrawal. The ongoing opioid epidemic stems in part from the heavy use of prescription opioids. According to drugabuse.gov, “roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.” Furthermore, “about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.”

Although many organizations at the governmental and community level are working to provide better access to services for treatment and recovery related to opioid addiction, the widespread rates at which opioids were previously being prescribed have already contributed greatly to the overall rise in drug use in the United States.

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