Research News

Illicit drug use in the US holds steady, but heroin use is on rise

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 10 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5544
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

Although illicit drug use in the United States has remained steady overall, there has been a sharp rise in the use of heroin over the past decade and the percentage of older Americans using illicit drugs continues to rise, a new government report has said.1

The report, an annual survey of illicit drug use conducted by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, found that 23.9 million Americans aged 12 and older, 9.2% of that population, had used an illicit drug in the past month.

The percentage is statistically unchanged from 2011, though higher than a decade ago when the rate was 7.9%.

The report is based on a survey of approximately 70 000 Americans, aged 12 and older. For the survey, illicit drugs included: marijuana and hashish, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, or prescription drugs, such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives used for non-medical purposes.

Marijuana remained the most commonly used illicit drug, with 18.9 million Americans age 12 and older, or 7.3 per cent of that group, using the drug in the past month. Of these, 7.6 million used the drug daily or almost daily.

The number of Americans aged 12 and older who used heroin in the past month rose from 281 000 in 2011 to 335 000 in 2012, a statistically insignificant change, but use was up significantly from 166 000 who were using heroin in 2002.

The percentage of older Americans using illicit drugs has risen markedly as the baby boomers, whose illicit drug use has been higher than older cohorts, age into their 50s and 60s. The percentage of those aged 50 to 54, for example, using illicit drugs in the past month rose from 3.4% in 2002 to 7.2% in 2012 and among those 55 to 60 from 1.9% to 6.6%. Among those aged 60 to 64, the rate increased more than threefold, from 1.1% in 2003 to 3.6% in 2012.

The percentage of Americans aged 12 and older who used prescription drugs non-medically has held steady since 2002, rising from 2.4% to 2.6% in 2012, a non-significant increase. Most, 54%, got the prescription drug from a friend for free. A tenth (10.9%) bought the drug from a friend or relative. About one in five, 19.7%, obtained them from a physician. The remainder, 4.5%, obtained them from a dealer, a stranger, or the internet.

The rate of use of illicit drugs was more common among unemployed adults than among those employed full time (18.1% compared with 8.9%).


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5544