Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

How Many Americans Are Addicted to Drugs?


  • In 2015, 27.1 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug within the previous 30 days of being surveyed. That’s about one in 10 Americans.
  • Of the 20.8 million people aged 12 or older with a substance use disorder (SUD), 15.7 million had an alcohol use disorder and 7.7 million had an illicit drug use disorder.
  • Fewer than 30% of people who used illicit drugs in 2015 suffered from addiction; however, this number could be low as many people fall through the cracks.

What Are Some of the Drugs?

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, illicit drugs included:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants
  • Methamphetamine
  • Prescription psychotherapeutic drugs (e.g. pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives).1

What Is a Substance Use Disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a “substance use disorder describes a problematic pattern of using alcohol or another substance that results in impairment in daily life or noticeable distress.”

A SUD is labeled mild, moderate or severe to indicate varying degrees of addiction, determined by the number of diagnostic criteria met by an individual.2

For a person to be diagnosed with an illicit drug disorder, they must display two of the following 11 symptoms within a 12-month period:3

  • Consuming more of the drug than originally planned
  • Worrying about stopping use of the drug or consistently failing in efforts to control its use
  • Spending a large amount of time using drugs or doing whatever is needed to obtain them
  • Using the drug results in failure to fulfill major obligations at home, work or school
  • “Craving” the drug
  • Continuing to use the drug despite physical or mental health problems caused or worsened by its use
  • Continuing to use the drug despite its negative effects on relationships with others
  • Repeatedly using the drug in dangerous situations (e.g. when operating heavy machinery or driving a car)
  • Giving up or reducing normal activities due to drug use
  • Building up a tolerance to the drug. Tolerance is defined in the DSM-5 as “either needing to use noticeably larger amounts over time to get the desired effect or noticing less of an effect over time after repeated use of the same amount.”
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping use

The terms “substance abuse” and “substance dependence,” which were used in previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, were replaced by the umbrella term “substance use disorder” in the DSM-5.

How Many Americans Suffer From Drug Addiction?

The following statistics all derive from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration with 2015 data.1

Cocaine Use Disorder

  • 896,000 total
  • 31,000, aged 12-17
  • 229,000, aged 18-25
  • 430,000, aged 26 and older

Heroin Use Disorder

  • 591,000 total
  • 6,000, aged 12-17
  • 155,000, aged 18-25
  • 430,000, aged 26 and older

Methamphetamine Use Disorder

  • 872,000 total
  • 22,000, aged 12-17
  • 156,000, aged 18-25
  • 694,000, aged 26 and older

Pain Reliever Use Disorder

  • 2.0 million total
  • 122,000, aged 12-17
  • 427,000, aged 18-25
  • 1.5 million, aged 26 and older

Tranquilizer Use Disorder

  • 688,000 total
  • 77,000, aged 12-17
  • 234,000, aged 18-25
  • 376,000, aged 26 and older

Stimulant Use Disorder

  • 426,000 total
  • 38,000, aged 12-17
  • 159,000, aged 18-25
  • 229,000, aged 26 and older

The scope of the drug addiction epidemic in America is immense. It impacts people of all ages, races, genders and socioeconomic strata. To compound the problem, co-occurring SUDs and mental health disorders are common, with 19.6 million adults suffering from both in 2015. Moreover, only a small percentage of people who need treatment receive it, and even fewer go to specialized facilities.

What Are the Statistics on the Prescription Opioid Epidemic?

  • About 2.1 million adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of nonmedical prescription opioid use disorder based on DSM-5 criteria from 2012 to 2013.4
  • In fact, in 2013, 746,000 people received treatment for prescription opioid use disorders at inpatient facilities or mental health centers.
  • An estimated 24% who were treated for opioid use disorders with pharmacotherapy primarily used prescription opioids.5

Opioid use disorder has well-documented negative consequences including:

  • Premature death
  • Acquisition and transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.
  • Many people who abuse prescription opioids transition to using heroin due to its relatively inexpensive cost and availability.

What Causes Prescription Opioid Addiction?

A recent study analyzed the onset and progression of opioid use disorder in those who first used opioids to get high (non-Rx group) compared to those who received a prescription (Rx group). The study consisted of 214 participants with an average age of 36.8 in the Rx group and 35.3 in the non-Rx group entering treatment at one of 125 drug treatment programs for opioid use disorder across the country.

  • The number of females in the Rx group (57.6%) and non-Rx group (53.6%) was higher than the number of males in the Rx group (42.4%) and non-Rx group (46.4%).
  • While prescribed opioids were more often the first drug of abuse among the Rx group compared to the non-Rx group, the vast majority of both groups used other psychoactive substances prior to their first exposure to an opioid.
  • Both groups had an array of psychiatric problems requiring treatment at some point in their lives, although the Rx group had a significantly greater incidence of depression.6
  • An estimated 85% of participants said opioids had the unanticipated capacity to provide a means of escaping from life’s unpleasantness, provide relief from comorbid psychiatric disorders (e.g. anxiety and depression) and/or made them feel what they perceived to be “normal” and more focused or energized. These complex drug-induced attributes, rather than simply producing a high, appeared to be the driving factors in chronic opioid use, and consequently, development of an opioid use disorder.
  • Within a relatively short time following persistent use, most individuals in both groups experienced dependence. They needed to take opioids in increasing amounts to prevent the pain and discomfort of opioid withdrawal. The fear of opioid sickness became such a powerful force that getting high or providing an escape from daily life either dissipated completely or took a backseat to the overwhelming need to avoid withdrawal symptoms.6

Addiction in the Workplace

Addiction in the workplace is rampant, with an estimated 75% of adults struggling with substance abuse currently employed.

  • Workers with SUDs miss nearly 50% more days than their colleagues, and as many as six weeks of work annually, according to the new study.
  • Construction, entertainment, recreation and food service businesses have twice the national average of employees with SUDs.
  • Drug addictions cost taxpayers more than $440 billion annually.
  • The cost of untreated substance abuse ranges from $2,600 per employee in agriculture to more than $13,000 per employee in the information and communications sector.7

Drug Addiction Is a Complex Problem

Statistics are just part of the picture. Until someone has experienced drug addiction firsthand, it is hard to fully comprehend the dire consequences of drug addiction on individuals, families, the workplace and society as a whole. Unfortunately, there is not a simple solution – many components including prevention, education, improved access to treatment and increased research need to be part of the equation. Addiction recovery involves many pathways, so treatment must be tailored to fit the unique cultural values, coexisting physical and mental health disorders and life circumstances of each individual.



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