September 17, 2010

Prescription Drug Abuse, Illegal Drug Use On The Rise

Nearly 22 million Americans aged 12 and older used illegal drugs in 2009, a rise of nine percent from 2008 levels, according to results released Thursday of a national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The number of U.S. residents aged 12 and older who used illegal drugs or abused prescription medications rose from 8.0 percent of the population in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009, the highest level since 2002, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found.

Although the increase was primarily driven by a spike in marijuana use, the use of other illegal drugs is also on the rise. 

The estimated number of past-month ecstasy users rose from 555,000 in 2008 to 760,000 in 2009, while the number of methamphetamine users increased from 314,000 to 502,000 during that time, a sixty percent increase, the survey found.

Roughly seven million Americans 12 and older used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. The majority of the prescription drug abuse involved painkillers, which 5.3 million Americans used off-label last year.  This represents an increase of 20 percent from 2002.

Meanwhile, the survey found flat or increasing trends of substance use among 12 to 17-year-olds.   Youth drug use was higher in 2009 (10 percent) than in 2008 (9.3 percent), but remained below 2002 levels (11.6 percent), SAMHSA said.

The rate of marijuana use in this age group followed a similar pattern, falling from 8.2 percent in 2002 to 6.7 percent in 2006, remaining steady until 2008, and then increasing to 7.3 percent in 2009, the survey found.

The increase was partly due to "discussions of legalization, so-called medical marijuana and a proliferation of pro-drug messages" that have left America's youth "misinformed about a drug whose potency has tripled in the past 20 years," SAMHSA said.

Not surprisingly, the percentage of youth perceiving significant risk of harm from smoking marijuana once or twice weekly fell from 54.7 percent in 2007 to 49.3 percent in 2009 -- the first time since 2002 that less than half of young people perceived the risk of substantial harm in frequent marijuana use.

"Past month marijuana use was much less prevalent among youths who perceived strong parental disapproval for trying marijuana or hashish once or twice than among those who did not -- 4.8 percent versus 31.3 percent, respectively," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The rate of current tobacco use or underage drinking among this age group remained stable between 2008 and 2009, SAMHSA said.

The rate of non-medical prescription painkiller use among teens rose 17 percent from 2008 to 2009, with most teenagers saying they obtained the medications from family, friends or an unsecured medicine cabinet.

One positive finding involved cocaine use among 18-25 year olds, which has fallen by 18 percent since 2007.

"Today's findings are disappointing but not surprising because eroding attitudes and perceptions of harm about drug use over the past two years have served as warning signs for what we see today," Kerlikowske said.

"Fortunately, this Administration's National Drug Control Strategy, with its focus on prevention, treatment, smart law enforcement, and support for those in recovery, highlights the right tools to reduce drug use and its consequences.  But our efforts must be reinforced and supported by the messages kids get from their parents."

The U.S. economic slowdown is partly to blame for the rising numbers of Americans who take drugs, said SAMHSA administrator Pamela Hyde.

"There is a relationship between economic issues and substance abuse," she said.

Indeed, the rate of drug abuse among the unemployed was 17 percent, compared with just 8 percent among Americans with full time jobs.

The complete survey findings are available on the SAMHSA Web site at: http://oas.samhsa.gov/nsduhLatest.htm.