The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) every year. Young people ages 12 to 17 and adults ages 18 and older participate in the survey. SAMHSA aims to gather a picture of the general state of substance use, mental health, and co-occurring disorders in Americans nationwide.
SAMHSA releases data from the previous year’s NSDUH around September of the following year. The most recent survey compiled all data collected in 2016 and reveals the most commonly used substance amongst Americans.
The following chart reveals the top 15 most misused drugs in America along with the number of people ages 12 and older who report using the substance at least once in the past month.
Top 15 Most Used Drugs in America in 2016
- Alcohol – 136.7 million
- Cigarettes – 63.4 million
- Marijuana – 23.9 million
- Pain Relievers – 3.4 million
- Tranquilizers – 1.9 million
- Cocaine – 1.8 million
- Stimulants – 1.7 million
- Methamphetamine – 667,000
- Ecstasy – 619,000
- Inhalants – 600,000
- Sedatives – 497,000
- Heroin – 475,000
- Crack – 432,000
- LSD – 374,000
- PCP – 21,000
Top 15 Most Used Drugs in America: Breaking Down the Data
It’s not surprising that alcohol and cigarettes, the two drugs that are legal nationwide, are the most commonly used. Alcohol and cigarettes are available in every gas station and convenience store. Despite the government’s efforts to get smokers to cut back or quit, data from the NSDUH reveals that nearly 20 percent of Americans still actively smoke.
As marijuana legalization becomes more widespread, more and more Americans adopt the practice into their lives. Increased access makes it possible for more people to smoke or ingest cannabis without having to go through a dealer.
Not surprisingly, pain relievers come in at fourth on the list. In today’s consumer culture, doctors continue to prescribe painkillers for surgeries and other medical procedures. This leaves otherwise non-addicted individuals hooked on prescription drugs with little understanding of how it happened.
Tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives, three other types of pharmaceutical medications, land within the top 11 slots. More than 6 million Americans misuse or abuse some type of prescription drug, whether it’s a painkiller, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative. Legislators continue working to tamp down on the prescribing of medications to those who do not need them.
“Street drugs” like methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin, and crack fill in the remainder of the top 15 slots. These drugs are more difficult to come by legally leading to lower rates of use. Thankfully these drugs remain used by only a small portion of the population; drugs like crack, heroin, and PCP have immense potential to destroy a person’s life.
Drug Use Changes Between 2015 and 2016
It is eye-opening to compare rates of drug use from last year’s NSDUH to this year’s. Observing trends of use throughout previous years provides insight into patterns of use nationwide. These data help researchers in their studies and legislators who work to pass laws regarding drug control.
Top 15 Most Used Drugs in America in 2015
- Alcohol – 138.2 million
- Cigarettes – 63.9 million
- Marijuana – 22.2 million
- Pain Relievers – 3.7 million
- Cocaine – 1.9 million
- Tranquilizers – 1.8 million
- Stimulants – 1.6 million
- Methamphetamine – 897,000
- Ecstasy – 557,000
- Inhalants – 527,000
- Sedatives – 446,000
- Crack – 394,000
- LSD – 352,000
- Heroin – 329,000
- PCP – 25,000
Notable Decreases in Substance Use
The NSDUH showed an overall decrease in the use of many drugs between 2015 and 2016. Most notable is the decrease in past-month alcohol use by nearly 2 million people. Pain relievers also saw a welcome drop in use by over 400,000 people. With the attention given to the opioid epidemic in the past few years, it is good to see a reflection in the amount of people using painkillers in the recent past.
The following drugs also saw less recent use in 2016 compared to 2015:
The most alarming change is the two-spot jump heroin made above crack and LSD. The noticeable increase in use by over 100,000 people is likely a response to the decrease in pain reliever use. Many who find themselves addicted to pain relievers either run out of their supply and cannot get another prescription or run out of money to afford their prescriptions.
When this happens, some decide to quit using pain relievers entirely. However, others aren’t willing to give up the high they’ve grown to enjoy and turn to alternatives. Unfortunately, heroin acts on the same brain receptors as prescription pain relievers and turns out to be a replacement.
As pain relievers become more difficult to acquire, heroin use appears to rise. While legislation regarding prescription medication has moved forward, more needs to be done to combat opioid use overall. Heroin is not only a difficult drug to quit using due to overwhelming cravings during the detox period, but it is a dangerous drug as well.
After collecting any amount of clean time, users who go back out often attempt to use the same amount they used when they first got sober. As a result, many accidentally overdose which leads to at least a hospitalization but often leads to death. For this reason, the rise in heroin use between 2015 and 2016 should not be taken lightly.
Marijuana also saw an unsurprising rise in use by nearly 2 million people. It is now much easier to acquire, with 29 of the 50 states legalizing cannabis either for medical or recreational use. Every year, the proposal to legalize marijuana crops up on at least a few states’ voting ballots.
Arguments both for and against marijuana exist. Each side touts research backing their position. Regardless of your stance on marijuana, use is blatantly on the rise and, with continued legalization, shows little sign of stopping. There is still a large gap between cigarettes and marijuana but that gap may close at some point in the future.
Cocaine and Tranquilizers
Cocaine is the most popular party drug available. The drug allows users the ability to drink more and for longer periods of time which can easily lead to a dangerous outcome. However, this doesn’t stop large numbers of people from using the substance, especially in large, metropolitan cities, in order to keep the party going.
Tranquilizers are a class of prescription drugs that include benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin, used to treat those with anxiety disorders and panic attacks. They are popular for the anxiety-relieving, relaxing, euphoric feelings they provide. Being high on tranquilizers, Xanax in particular is referred to as being “barred out.” Users experience slowed thoughts, slurred speech, and impaired movement.
This year, tranquilizers took over cocaine for the 5th spot. This likely has something to do with the easier access to prescription medication, as well as the increase in prescriptions for anxiety disorders. People must acquire cocaine illegally and, while tranquilizers can be found from dealers as well, there are doctors legally prescribing these medications every day.
Normal Alcohol Use vs. Binge Drinking vs. Heavy Alcohol Use
Alcohol is by far the most widely used drug on the list which is hardly surprising. Its presence is so common in restaurants, bars, on television, and in print advertisements that most people don’t even realize it is a drug. For those whose lives are affected by someone with a drinking problem, though, they are all too aware of the havoc alcohol can cause.
There are three levels of alcohol consumption:
- Low-risk or “normal” drinking
- Binge drinking
- Heavy alcohol use
SAMHSA’s research breaks down the number of low-risk drinkers, binge drinkers, and heavy alcohol users in the NSDUH. Each level is defined by a cap at a certain number of drinks in a single day. Drinking limits are always slightly higher for men than women due to biological differences that cause their bodies to process alcohol at different speeds.
What are the differences between drinking levels? How many people are actually drinking at more dangerous levels than they realize?
Low-Risk (“Normal”) Drinking
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines low-risk drinking as:
Men: No more than 4 drinks in a single day AND No more than 14 drinks per week.
Women: No more than 3 drinks in a single day AND No more than 7 drinks per week.
So how many people actually drink within the confines of these “normal” low-risk levels?
According to the NSDUH, less than half of Americans ages 12 and older, or 40 percent more specifically, drink within the guidelines for low-risk drinking. With drinking being such a prevalent part of our culture, from sports games to concets, family gatherings to office parties, it’s not so surprising that the number of people within the criteria for low-risk drinking is so low.
For the purpose of their survey, SAMHSA defines binge drinking as:
- 5 or more drinks during the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days
- 4 or more drinks during the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days
Binge drinking is the most common form of drinking with 48 percent of drinkers ages 12 and older fitting the criteria. Binge drinking has the potential to be incredibly dangerous when individuals push past these four and five drink limits. Alcohol poisoning is a possibility, especially for those who don’t regularly consume large amounts of alcohol.
Heavy Alcohol Use
Heavy alcohol use is SAMHSA’s term for those who some people would refer to as alcoholics. SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as:
- Binge drinking (5 or more drinks during one occasion) on 5 or more days within a 30-day period
- Binge drinking (4 or more drinks during one occasion) on 5 or more days within a 30-day period
Heavy alcohol use is less common with 12 percent of drinkers reporting their drinking fits in the criteria. This still means, though, that at least 1 in 10 Americans qualify as a heavy alcohol user. The real danger is when alcohol becomes a coping mechanism rather than a way to relax with friends. Once alcohol becomes a crutch, it becomes much more difficult to alter drinking behavior or stop entirely.
What Can You Do with This Data?
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health points out how prevalent drug and alcohol use is among American citizens. Although many are able to drink responsibly, the danger of an intoxicated individual getting behind the wheel of a car still exists. No matter how responsibly you drink or use, mind-altering substances have the potential to cause you to harm yourself or someone else.
Perhaps it opened your eyes to the fact that you might be drinking more than you realized. Maybe you’re a part of the smaller numbers who use harder drugs and are seeking sobriety. How did this data affect your view of drugs and alcohol in our society, or in your own life? Share this post and the data from SAMHSA’s survey with someone who may be curious about the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in the United States.