Why Is American Drug Use On The Rise?

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If you live in the United States, you have likely noticed the substance abuse problem, which affects so many people. Most generations, genders, and demographics in the United States, drug use and abuse have increased. This data applies to many different substances, including heroin, prescription drugs, marijuana, or synthetic drugs such as ecstasy or methamphetamine. With so much information available about the dangers of drug abuse, one would think addiction statistics would be on the decline, but they aren’t. Millions of people each year struggle with drug abuse and addiction, but why? Unfortunately, the answer to this question proves to be quite challenging.

Current Prevalence of Drug Use in America

To fully understand the direction of drug abuse trends in America, it is essential to first understand some facts about drug use and abuse trends.

First, when compiling statistics, drug trends are measured individually and as a whole. Trend reports are taken on individual abuse of specific drugs, such as heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. Then, overall drug abuse is measured in total. In addition to trend data, statistics around demographics are measured regarding who is abusing drugs from race, to which age, to gender, and more. Finally, overdose rates are also examined to determine which substances have the most dangerous impacts on users.

It is valuable to keep in mind; drug use remains illegal, and as a result, many induvial are unlikely to speak about their habits openly. Their silence makes determining the exact scope and prevalence of drug use in the United States virtually impossible. Although we cannot determine exact numbers, current statistics point to the rates of drug use and addiction being very high-perhaps at historic levels. Below are a few data points to consider:

  • Since 1999, the number of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the United States has quadrupled, totaling over half a million fatalities during a ten-year period.
  • The second most commonly abused substance is prescription medications.
  • More than have of illicit drug users begin with marijuana.
  • Drug abuse occurs most in people beginning in their teen years to the early twenties.
  • Alcohol is the most abused substance after marijuana.
  • Most people first try substances recreationally during their teen years.

Addiction knows no bounds

The increase in drug use (of all kinds) in the United States has consistently been on the rise for the last decade or more. When one looks at the data associated with drug use, it is easy to say there are no demographics that are immune to the effects of or temptation of drug use. However, there are specific groups that have seen significant increases in consumption over the past decade or so. Some of the most significant changes have been among demographic groups that aren’t typically viewed as prone to substance use challenges.


According to the Centers for Disease Control, the gaps in heroin use between men and women have narrowed throughout the twenty-first century. Between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin use among women increased one hundred percent and has mostly continued to rise in subsequent years. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, women are the fastest-growing demographic of alcohol and drug use in the United States. Data from 2015 indicated almost five million women over age twelve have a substance use disorder. Additional statistics revealed that nearly four million abuse or misuse prescription drugs, and just over three million regularly abuse illicit drugs. Among teen girls between the age of twelve and seventeen, nonmedical use (use without a prescription) of prescription painkillers, alcohol, methamphetamine, and many other illicit substances matched or exceeded that of boys from the same age group.


History tells us that drug use is a problem for the poor and disadvantaged; however, recent studies have shown this idea to be rooted in myth as opposed to fact. Part of the reason why substance abuse and addiction have historically been linked to poverty is because education levels are a risk factor for developing a substance use disorder. Since most affluent people are well educated, it has been thought that addiction is less likely to touch this demographic. However, affluence comes with its own special set of risk factors. Studies from 2012 showed that young adults in the highest socioeconomic levels were more likely than their peers from lower-income brackets to drink alcohol and use marijuana.

Older Adults:

Likely the most surprising demographic of Americans who are using drugs more today than in the past are adults over the age of fifty. In many cases, these individuals stopped using drugs as they were starting families but have now resumed use (and abuse) as a result of having fewer professional and familial responsibilities. Many members of this generation also came from the world where “sex, drugs and rock and roll” were all looked at in a highly positive light.

Older adults are using and abusing drugs, being arrested for drug-related offenses, and dying from an overdose at increasingly higher rates than in the past. Between the early nineties and the arrival of 2010, the death rate from accidental overdose increased eleven-fold. In 2013, more than 12,000 adults over age fifty died from an overdose. As 2020 arrived, the Centers for Disease Control estimated nearly six million people from this age group need addiction treatment.

Why are people using drugs now more than ever?

Over the past decade or so, drug use in the United States has increased significantly. What is unclear are the specific reasons why. There are several potential theories which are addressed below:

The increase in opioid prescriptions

As the American population ages, the prevalence of chronic pain increases. Over the last decade, the rise in chronic pain cases has led to an increase in prescriptions for pain management, which has opened the door to heroin abuse and addiction.

At some point, Americans began to suffer from chronic pain at higher rates than ever before. Various reports show between eleven and eighteen percent of Americans (of all ages) experience chronic or severe pain. When one considers prescription painkillers being the most likely remedy to mitigate this pain, and that prescription drug abuse is the most common gateway to heroin abuse or addiction, a clear relationship appears.

Changing views on drugs

In the past, people viewed drug use differently. Today, Americans of all ages have a vastly different perception of the dangers of drug use. This is especially true of marijuana, as several states have now legalized it for medicinal and/or recreational use. In 1969, a Gallup poll of just over one thousand adults across the country showed only twelve percent of those adults were in favor of legalizing marijuana. In 2001 that number had increased to thirty-one percent and almost sixty percent by 2015.

While it is true that favorable views on marijuana do not necessarily point directly to favorable views on other drugs, there is a possible correlation. A recent survey of tenth graders by an organization called Monitoring the Future indicated fewer tenth graders (compared to a previous survey) perceived a risk of taking inhalants, synthetic drugs, crack or Vicodin on an occasional basis.


More Americans are stressed today than in previous years. Several employee surveys have shown that the American workforce struggles with high levels of stress and anxiety related to job security, income, and ongoing concerns regarding discrimination. As stress levels increase, it is not uncommon for people to seek a way to resolve their stress. In some cases, drug use or alcohol use will be their chosen outlet.

How do we reverse the trend?

Despite the nation’s “war on drugs,” success has only been marginally achieved. So, what is the best way or ways to reduce drug use and abuse in the nation? Many say it starts with education. Several drug abuse prevention organizations have indicated that the best way to reduce drug abuse in America is for parents and community leaders to take proactive approaches to substance abuse prevention. This includes recognizing risk factors for addiction development and knowing what the signs of abuse look like, among other things.

Risk factors:

  • Lack of education
  • Mental illness (co-occurring or pre-existing)
  • Poverty
  • Parental substance abuse

Signs of substance abuse

  • Physical health issues
  • Hygiene or appearance changes
  • Behavioral changes
  • Financial difficulties (new struggles with finances or increased levels of poverty)
  • Problems at school or work
  • Relationship difficulties

The above lists are by no means conclusive, but they are a place to start. In many cases, proactivity is the most beneficial step in reducing the potential for addiction-related struggles. However, when proactivity is not enough, treatment is the next step.

Therapy - Drug Use - The Hills

Treatment for those who struggle with substance abuse is available in many forms. Treatment modalities exist to treat physical, mental, and emotional health challenges related to substance use and addiction. One of the primary types of therapy used in treatment for addiction is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. This therapy works by teaching people to form new and healthy lifestyle habits, which help them to build a life without substance use. Cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions can occur in both inpatient and outpatient settings. In addition to psychotherapy, such as CBT, there are also medication therapies that can be used to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal. Regardless of the treatment modality chosen, it is essential to make sure the treatment meets the person’s specific needs.

Here at The Hills in the Los Angeles, California area, we specially design our treatments around your needs. Substance abuse treatment cannot be a single approach provided to all people. Treatment must be centered around the person, the length of addiction, and the substance used. Also, pre-existing or co-existing medical and mental health conditions must be considered and treated in conjunction with a substance addiction. How you as an individual react to treatment and associated withdrawal, will be vastly different from another person. Therefore, treatment must be tailored to fit your needs. At The Hills, our highly trained staff will work with you to determine the type of treatment that best suits your needs. If you are struggling with substance abuse or addiction and are ready to seek treatment, contact us at The Hills today.

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