Drug use among young adults on the rise in U.S.

A national drug-use survey has found that drug use among college-age adults is increasing, driven largely by an increase marijuana use.

Nearly one in 10 Americans report regularly using illegal drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants or prescription drugs used recreationally, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health made public today. The survey, sponsored by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), collects the data from interviews with 67,500 randomly selected people 12 years or older.

Marijuana, with 17.4 million regular users, is by far the most commonly used drug the survey reported. Its popularity is growing. 6.9% of the population reported using marijuana regularly, up from 5.8% in 2007. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 7.4% reported having used marijuana in the past month, about the same as last year. Drug use among young adults 18 to 25 has inched up steadily from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.5% in 2010. Marijuana use in that group rose from 16.5% in 2008 to 18.5% in 2010.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, attributed the rise in marijuana use to the increase in the number of states that have approved it for medical use. Delaware in May became the 16th state to approve medical marijuana. “People keep calling it medicine, and that's the wrong message for young people to hear,” Kerlikowske said. Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates decriminalizing marijuana agreed. “In the field of medicine, whether or not a youth might abuse something doesn't determine whether or not an adult should have access to a medication and whether a doctor should prescribe it,” Piper said.

Meanwhile on the encouraging side, methamphetamine use, which raced across the USA for a decade, has declined sharply. The number of past-month users fell from 731,000 in 2006 to 353,000 in 2010. Since methamphetamine emerged as a problem drug in 2001, states have outlawed or restricted the sale of ingredients used to concoct homemade meth, such as pseudoephedrine found in cold medicines such as Sudafed.

“We've seen better attention for law enforcement and policy changes. You can't get all the Sudafed you want anymore,” said Peter Delany, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at SAMHSA.

The percentage of the population that used prescription drugs, such as narcotic painkillers, for non-medical reasons stayed at 2.7%. The survey found that 55% of them got the drugs free from a friend or relative; 11.4% bought them from a friend or relative, and 5% stole them from a friend or relative. Just 4% purchased them from a drug dealer.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called prescription-drug abuse a public health epidemic, Kerlikowske said, law enforcement agencies cracked down on doctors who write thousands of prescriptions with little or no medical examination, and states created programs to monitor the prescribing of narcotics. “I think we're starting to see some positive results, but we're by no means out of the woods,” Kerlikowske said.

On Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration clamped down on “bath salts,” the nickname for a synthetic drug that some public health experts have identified as an emerging drug problem. The synthetic drugs, often sold at convenience stores under names such as “Cloud Nine” or “Ivory Wave,” allegedly mimic the effects of cocaine or LSD and can cause hallucinations and paranoia. The American Association of Poison Control Centers has logged 4,137 reports of illness from those drugs as of July 31, up from 302 calls in 2010.

Cocaine use also declined, from 2.4 million current users in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010. Fewer 12- to 17-year-olds drank alcohol and used tobacco

Peter Delany, PhD, says that the rise in the use of illicit drugs from 2008 to 2010 is of concern, but the survey does show that we are making some dents in the use of tobacco and alcohol use. “We really need to learn from what we have done with alcohol and tobacco,” he says. “We really need to figure out this marijuana problem and understand how to help people not use and/or delay starting to use marijuana.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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