Substance use has fluctuated nationally since the mid-70s when the government and other
independent sources began collecting data on this behavior. Over the past 5-10 years, the
level of substance use has remained relatively stable; however, research indicates changes
in the types of drugs used. Each year, a number of national surveys are conducted to
determine the prevalence of substance use in this country, the number of new users (or
incidence of the behavior), and the attitudes of users and non-users.
National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA)
is a household survey
conducted by the federal government's
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
. The most recent data from 1999 report:
An estimated 14.8 million Americans currently use illicit drugs, representing 6.7
percent of the population 12 and older.
Marijuana is the most common illicit drug, used by 75% of people reporting illicit
Approximately 43% of the population (an estimated 6.4 million Americans) use
other illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, crack, hallucinogens, and other
psychotherapeutic medications taken non-medically or without prescription.
Tobacco and alcohol misuse are other aspects of substance use that are tracked by
More than 30% of the population surveyed in the 1999 NHSDA reported current
use of tobacco, with the vast majority smoking cigarettes.
About 45 million Americans (an estimated 20.2%) reported engaging in binge
drinking episodes, defined as having 5 or more drinks on one occasion during the
30 days prior to the survey.
Over 12 million Americans (an estimated 5.6 percent) were identified as heavy
drinkers, having 5 or more drinks on one occasion 5 or more times during the 30
days prior to the survey.
Although consumption of alcohol is illegal for those under 21, 10.4 million
drinkers were ages 12-20 in 1999. In this group, 6.8 million (approximately 65%)
engaged in binge drinking.
Variation by Age
Rates and patterns of drug use tend to vary by age. For example, 4.1 percent of 12 year
olds surveyed in the NHSDA reported current (use within the past month) illicit drug use.
Among this age group, the primary illicit drugs of choice were inhalants and
psychotherapeutics (2.2 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively). Only 0.6 percent of the 12
year olds used marijuana. However, by age 14, marijuana was the dominant drug, with a
prevalence of 5.9 percent. Overall, the rate of current illicit drug use among 14 year olds
was 9.2 percent.