Facts on Drug Use

Addiction touches the lives of millions of Americans each year. Regardless of age, race, religion, economic standing, or other traceable demographic, hundreds of thousands of individuals use drugs or alcohol for the first time every year. Additionally, millions more continue to struggle with ongoing addiction to opioids, alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit substances.

Unfortunately, struggles with addiction know no boundaries. Annually, millions of parents, coworkers, friends, and even children lose their lives to overdose. Although many statistics related to addiction are well known, reviewing annual data helps to highlight some of the more common struggles related to drug and alcohol addiction and addiction treatment.

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The Swiss Cheese Model of Drug Addiction

The Swiss Cheese Model of Drug Addiction

Why Are Drugs Addictive?

It’s not uncommon for first-time drug users or their loved ones to not understand why or how they become addicted to drugs. Drug addiction was considered a choice or a voluntary decision for many years. People believed that when you became addicted to drugs, it was a moral failing or lacked the willpower to stop using when you wanted to. This misunderstanding and dangerous misconception about how drugs affect the body has led to decades of stigma, ineffective addiction treatment, and rising overdose death rates among Americans of all ages.
Research has proven that drug addiction is a complex disease.1 When someone uses drugs (or alcohol), ongoing abuse and misuse of substances change how the brain functions. These changes make quitting hard, if not impossible, even for someone who desperately wants to get sober. Fortunately, the same research has provided insight into how drugs change the brain leading to more effective and increasing rates of positive treatment outcomes.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

Most substances impact the reward circuit in the brain. The reward circuit causes feelings of pleasure, happiness, and joy when we do something “good.” Under normal circumstances, the reward circuit is triggered by daily activities such as hobbies that please you, eating, hugs from a loved one, romantic encounters with a loved one, or even exercise and other forms of physical stimulation.
A properly functioning reward system in the brain releases dopamine when you participate in these activities. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain that reinforces the positive emotions you feel. However, unhealthy behaviors such as drug abuse also create surges of dopamine in the body, leading you to continue using to experience elevated feelings of euphoria and pleasure that occur when you use.
Ongoing use of drugs forces the brain to adapt to using drugs for dopamine release instead of “normal” activities. The brain adapts by reducing the ability of the cells in the reward system to respond. In time, you no longer experience feelings of pleasure or euphoria from day-to-day activities. Also, however, you no longer feel the same high by using the same dose of drugs. This is called tolerance. As tolerance builds, it’s necessary to take more and more of a particular substance to achieve the same high you first felt when you used it. Long-term drug use also causes changes to other circuits in the brain, affecting functions such as learning, decision making, judgment, and many others.

Data on First-Time Drug Use

Chronic addiction often develops out of “one-time experimentation.” Many people believe it’s possible to use drugs just once without risk for addiction. Although this may be true in some (often rare) situations, it’s far more common for one-time experimentation to evolve into dependency and addiction.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) monitors substance abuse statistics and overdose death data across all demographics in the United States. Part of the 2018 survey monitors first-time use statistics for many substances.2 In 2018, more than 570,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 began smoking for the first time. Also, over 1,000,000 adults over age 18 started smoking with the past year. The highest initiation rate for 2018 was alcohol.

Because alcohol and tobacco products are legally purchased substances, many young people don’t consider the highly addictive nature of tobacco abuse and alcohol abuse. However, these substances kill millions of people from disease and other situations directly linked to alcohol and tobacco addiction every year. According to the 2018 NSDUH, nearly five million Americans over the age of 12 began using alcohol in the past year.2

Illicit Substance Use

In addition to tracking alcohol and tobacco use, the NSDUH also tracks illicit substances. The first-time statistics for substances including marijuana, prescription tranquilizers, hallucinogens, stimulants, cocaine, inhalants, sedatives, methamphetamines, opioid pain medications, and heroin, are tracked by the annual survey.

Prescription medication addiction is a struggle faced by Americans of all ages. Like alcohol, prescription medications are provided by legal means. This means many adolescents and adults don’t consider the addictive nature of prescription drugs until it’s too late and prescription addiction has developed.

It’s also not uncommon for people who struggle with an addiction to prescription drugs to turn to illicit substances when they can no longer access the drugs they’ve grown dependent on. Data from the NSDUH suggests more than 4.5 million people began abusing prescription drugs in 2018. Another 3 million began abusing marijuana, 1 million started using hallucinogenic drugs, 875 million started using cocaine, 205 million used methamphetamine, and 117 million started using heroin.

Types of Drug Abuse

Drug addiction and abuse develop in different ways.
Drug Abuse Statistics 


Some people develop an addiction to drugs unintentionally. This can occur when someone takes a prescription drug as part of a treatment plan prescribed by their primary care provider. This could be a medication to help manage pain or help with a mental health condition. Unfortunately, although beneficial as part of a treatment program, many of these medications also carry a significant risk for addiction if used long-term or misused.

In time, when the prescription expires, or the individual no longer has access to their drug of choice, they may turn to illicit substances to help satisfy cravings to use. Prescription painkillers also frequently lead to addiction, as someone who uses prescription painkillers long-term can become addicted to the effects of the drug. Someone struggling with chronic pain who tries to wean off a long-term pain medication will experience withdrawal symptoms and side effects, making it difficult to stop using the drug.

Intentional Self-Harm

In direct contrast to unintentional addiction is intentional self-harm. Millions of people who begin using substances each year do so “on purpose.” For reasons that may be unexplainable to friends, loved ones, or addiction treatment providers, people turn to substances such as methamphetamines, heroin, stimulants, and other substances to improve mood, performance, or mitigate symptoms related to an underlying physical or mental health condition. In time, this can lead to drug abuse and addiction.

Causes of Addiction

There is no singular cause of addiction. It’s believed that several factors may combine to create an increased risk of someone developing a substance use disorder. The most common factors are typically:
  • Genetics (biology)
  • Environmental factors
  • Underlying mental health conditions
  • Substance use disorder that evolves out of prescription medication dependency


Biology or genetics contribute to approximately half of one’s risk for developing an addiction. Genetic factors include the genes a person is born with, such as biological gender and ethnicity. A person’s environment is also a substantial contributing factor.

Environmental Factors

Your environment includes several influences from your surroundings, including family, friends, quality of life, and economic stability, among others. Social factors including peer pressure, abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), early exposure to illicit drugs or prescription pain killer abuse, stress, and parental influence are all believed to contribute to an elevated risk of someone developing a substance use disorder.

Mental Health Disorders

It’s not uncommon for someone struggling with a substance use disorder to experience symptoms related to a mental health condition. People with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health diagnoses often turn to drugs or alcohol to dull the intensity and severity of their mental health symptoms. Because drugs or alcohol only provide short-term relief, people who self-medicate find they must use more frequent and higher doses of drugs or alcohol to maintain symptom relief. This process can quickly lead to tolerance, dependency, and, inevitably, addiction.

Prescription Medication Dependence

The same cycle frequently occurs with pain killers. Prescription pain medications or pain killers are typically prescribed for short-term pain management. When someone engages in opioid abuse (misusing pain medications) by using them outside of their prescription, for longer than prescribed, or using opioids prescribed to someone else, it can very quickly lead to a dangerous dependency on pain medications.

Statistics on Addiction in America

Drug use statistics in America are provided to the public through national surveys like the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and data provided by federal organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As previously noted, addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Alcohol, smoking, and illicit drug use are responsible for thousands of deaths each year. In 2019, nearly 71,000 people died from a drug-related overdose in America.3 Of those, almost 50,000 were the result of opioid overdose. Over the last decade, more than half a million Americans over age twelve have died due to drug overdose.
Drug abuse costs extend beyond the loss of life attributed to overdose. Drug abuse statistics also indicate the financial cost of substance use disorders is substantial. Recent data suggests that drug abuse and alcohol addiction cost the United States economy approximately $740 billion each year.4 To put that into context, the cost of Airforce 1 is $5.2 billion.5

How Do Drug Work on the Brain?

Mind Matters: How do Drugs Work on the Brain?

Drug Use Statistics in Specific Populations

2017 statistics of teenage drug use provided by the Centers for Disease Control showed approximately 4% of the adolescent population in the United States suffered from a substance abuse disorder.6 This number equals 992,000 teens or one out of every twenty-five adolescents between ages 12 and 17.
Also, approximately 5.1 million young adults ages 18-25 struggled with a substance abuse disorder in 2017. This equals nearly 15% of the population for this age group or about one out of seven people. Americans in this age group currently experience the highest rates of addiction in the nation.
The same report showed nearly 35.9% of the population between ages 26 and 35 struggle with addictions to illicit drugs, marijuana, and prescription drugs. More than 15% of the population over age 65 has a substance use disorder. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that addiction rates among older adults and seniors are rising.
Drug Abuse Statistics 

Statistics on Addiction to Specific Substances

Drug use statistics in America show that addiction to specific substances is different based on various demographics.7 For example, drug use statistics by race show approximately 7% of African Americans experience struggles with addiction. Similar drug use statistics by race show less than 4% of Asian Americans experience substance use disorders. Overall, drug use statistics in America show some demographics experience far more complex challenges with some substances than others.

Opioid Statistics

The opioid epidemic continues to present treatment and healthcare challenges across the nation. Opioids of all kinds, prescription and illicit, have led to a significant rise in drug-related overdose over the last decade.

As many as 2 million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for an opioid use disorder. Data from the CDC suggests more than 100 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. This is often linked to the high rate of abuse and misuse of these drugs. It’s estimated that up to 30% of people to take prescription opioids misuse them, and more than 10% of those will inevitably develop an addiction to opioids.

Alcohol, Marijuana, and Tobacco Statistics

Alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are three substances that are legal or primarily legal across the nation. However, millions of people struggle with addictions to these substances. Alcohol remains the most widely abused (legal) substance in the United States. An average of 30 Americans die every day from causes linked to alcohol use, including alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related car accidents.
About 6% of Americans have an alcohol use disorder. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug becoming increasingly legal across the United States. More than 40 million Americans use marijuana each year for recreational or medicinal purposes. Of those, as many as 30% engage in cannabis abuse and have a marijuana use disorder.
Roughly 10% of marijuana users who use the drug (regardless of reason) will develop an addiction. Tobacco addictions affect more than 34 million Americans, and more than 16 million Americans have a smoking-related illness. Overall, smoking leads to nearly half a million deaths annually.

Meth, Cocaine, and Hallucinogens Statistics

Drug abuse statistics suggest addictions to methamphetamine, cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogens, and prescription drugs remain challenges across all demographics. Addiction statistics by race indicate African Americans experience addiction to these and other substances at rates similar to Caucasians and other populations. Approximately 5 million Americans are addicted to cocaine, and nearly 15,000 died of cocaine-related causes in 2018.

Methamphetamine overdoses increased almost threefold between 2015 and 2019. Approximately one million Americans struggle with addictions to methamphetamines; nearly 16,000 of those are between the ages of 12 and 17. Hallucinogenic drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine also present challenges for youth and adults alike in the United States.
Almost one and a half million people in the United States use hallucinogenic drugs regularly. Statistics indicate almost 8% of all youth in 12th grade have used hallucinogenic drugs at least once in the year 2020.7 Inhalant abuse contributes to nearly 15% of deaths by suffocation each year, and more than 500,000 Americans struggle with inhalant addictions.

Addiction Treatment Statistics

Addiction treatment programs that provide evidence-based detox and therapeutic care are proven successful in helping people overcome an alcohol or drug addiction. Unfortunately, drug abuse statistics and research suggest that too few of those who could benefit from addiction treatment will ever receive the help they need at an addiction treatment center. Overall estimates indicate as many as 21 million Americans struggle with at least one addiction. Of those, 11% or less will ever receive the help they need to put those struggles in the past.8

Professional Rehab Center

Seeking treatment at an addiction treatment center is vital for a successful and safe recovery. Skilled treatment staff at a professional rehab center provides support and guidance throughout drug addiction detox and therapy. Professional rehab centers provide skilled treatment focused on specialized care. This means if you struggle with an addiction to cocaine, the treatment model will focus on helping you address your treatment needs and goals based on your specific treatment needs.

Dangers of At-Home Detox

Although it’s possible to overcome addictions to substances on your own or at home, home detox is not advised. This is because withdrawing from certain substances such as alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines can lead to significant and overwhelming withdrawal symptoms. It’s not uncommon for addicts trying to get sober to relapse and potentially overdose when withdrawal symptoms become too complex to manage without support and guidance. At a professional rehab, skilled treatment professionals will ensure you safely and successfully begin your sobriety journey.

Addiction Relapse Rates

Relapse is a far too common struggle many people face as they work on their sobriety. There are no steadfast rules as to when relapse can or may occur. Some people may experience relapse early in their recovery and others far later. Still, others may never experience a relapse at all.
Seeking professional help at a drug rehab center near you can ensure you learn more about the tools and skills necessary to prevent relapse as part of a comprehensive, evidence-based treatment program. You’ll learn about relapse prevention and managing triggers that often lead people to return to using.

Why Are Drugs So Hard to Quit?

Why are Drugs So Hard To Quit

Addiction Treatment

At an addiction treatment program like Still Water Treatment Center, sobriety from drug or alcohol addiction is within reach. At a drug and alcohol rehab, trained professionals will help you start on the path towards understanding and overcoming addiction. Drug abuse statistics reports suggest that detox is the first and most vital step in treatment for many people.

Detox with Medication-Assisted Therapy

Detox, although challenging, is essential for allowing your body the opportunity to cleanse itself of all toxic chemicals. Some programs incorporate medication-assisted therapy or MAT into the detox and therapy process. MAT programs use specific medications (under the supervision of skilled providers) to help reduce the intensity and severity of withdrawal symptoms and cravings during therapy.


As your treatment program comes to an end, you’ll work with your treatment team to ensure a comprehensive aftercare program is in place. Aftercare programs ensure you have access to ongoing medical and mental health treatment, peer support groups, community supports, and other essential tools designed to promote ongoing relapse prevention.
Reports on drug abuse statistics show that seeking help at a professional rehab is the safest and most effective way to maintain sobriety long-term. Addiction is not a struggle that will resolve on its own. Connect with Stillwater Behavioral Health team to learn more about how our staff and programs can help guide you along your recovery journey.