Over 90% of US adolescents don’t use illicit substances, according to SAMSHA data

In September, SAMSHA released the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report for 2013 (The complete report is here: NSDUH14-0904). It’s an illuminating document because, while the stats presented in the survey are alarming, to me, they are also reassuring. For example:

An estimated 24.6 million individuals aged 12 or older were current illicit drug users in 2013, including 2.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17. In 2013, 60.1 million individuals aged 12 or older were past month binge drinkers, including 1.6 million adolescents.

In terms of percentages, this data indicates that 8.8% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 were current illicit drug users at the time the survey was taken. Overall, 9.4% of adults > 18 were current drug users at the time of the survey. Of the drugs surveyed, the most used across both groups was [drum roll…]: Marijuana (7.6%). Not heroin or cocaine. Marijuana. The second most used? Prescription drugs (2.5%). Heroin didn’t even get to a full percentage point. For all people surveyed, only .1% of respondents reported using heroin. Heroin use does not appear to be as prevalent as would be indicated through media reports.

This data is alarming: Almost 10% of the population uses some form of illicit substance. But, the flip side of the coin is reassuring: More than 90% of the population doesn’t use an illicit substance. This means, for example, that in a classroom of 30 high school sophomores, 3 of them are using something but 27 do not appear to be. It seems a bit low to me, but if you are a parent of one of the 3 who are in fact using, it’s an overwhelming amount.

From a treatment perspective, based upon the report, it appears that most adolescents are understanding that using illicit substances isn’t a healthy option. This apparent majority indicates that drug prevention campaigns may be working and that discussing the risks of substance use may be yielding positive outcomes. I’m making a lot of assumptions, but actual numbers don’t lie.

Please don’t get me wrong: If 1 adolescent dies of a heroin or opiate overdose, it’s 1 way too many. We as treatment providers (and adults) must continue to drive the numbers of teens who use illicit drugs downward. We need to continue to establish safe ways to discuss the impacts of substance use and their associated health and socioeconomic risks. But for those moralists who think that the world is falling apart, this data indicates that for the most part, people live their lives free of illicit drugs. This indication should provide a sense of hope; it does for me.

Like I said, there’s a lot of work ahead of us. 24.6 million people overall and 2.2 million adolescents who use illicit drugs is an overwhelming and scary amount. But at least there’s hope that the sky really isn’t falling; it’s just covered by clouds. We can win this battle against illicit drugs; it appears that we are in fact making progress.


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