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Drug Addiction in the US: How Bad Is It?

drug addiction in the US

The Opioid Crisis. Wine Moms. Teens Using JUULs. We’ve all seen the headlines. Everywhere you turn there seems to be another study, article, or TV pundit talking about how bad the drug crisis has gotten in America. Gone are the days of the D.A.R.E. program and the “War on Drugs.” Instead, we have entered an era of drug legalization, the proliferation of drugs throughout society, and a general laissez-faire acceptance of everyone and anyone doing drugs. At least, that is what the media portrays. The truth, as always, is far more complicated.

Yes, it is true that drug use has risen in recent years across all generations, genders, and other demographics in the United States. Some attribute this to a change in views on drugs and recreational drug use over the last 50 years. For example, 58% of the population favored the legalization of weed in 2015 compared to 12% in 1969. In conjunction, many Americans view recreational drug use as a way to relax and escape the increased levels of stress of modern life. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of Americans seeking treatment for chronic pain. Nearly 126 million Americans reported suffering from chronic pain in 2012, and many turn to recreational drugs to help with the pain.

However, it has been difficult for agencies, institutions, and government and medical researchers to truly grasp the scope of drug use and drug addiction in the United States, due in large part to the continued silence surrounding drug use and addiction. Many people refuse to participate in studies and surveys conducted by these groups due to the stigma and shame associated with drug addiction. Others fear potential legal and criminal repercussions that could cost them their jobs, welfare benefits, access to their children, or could result in jail time. Yet despite this reluctance, some organizations have been able to collect data that gives us a picture of how rampant drug use is in America. Quest Diagnostics, one of the leading companies conducting employee drug testing nationwide, reported a 10 year high in positive drug tests in 2015, while the United Nations Drug Report found that heroin use in America was at a 20 year high in 2016. Similarly, the European Survey Project on Alcohol and Other drugs reported that the use of illicit drugs among American high schoolers was nearly 35% compared to 18% among their European counterparts.

These studies have also discovered that the largest increase in drug use and substance use disorder have occurred in unexpected demographic groups. Traditionally, high levels of drug use are associated with poorer, younger, and male demographics. However, recent trends have found that women, Baby Boomers, and wealthy adolescences and young adults have experienced the fastest substance use and abuse growth rates in the past few years. Currently there are 4.5 million women over the age of 12 in America who suffer from a substance use disorder. 3.5 million women have a prescription drug addiction, while 3.1 million are addicted to illicit drugs. Baby Boomers, people over the age of 50, saw an 11-fold increase in accidental overdoses from 1990 to 2010. Many of these Boomers had used drugs in their youth, stopped when they started their families, and returned to their drugs habits once their children had grown. However, during the interceding years, many of the drugs they once used exponentially increased in potency. Others were mixed with other illicit drugs which often prove to be fatal. There has also been a drastic increase in drug use among affluent adolescences and young adults. Studies have found that these kids, who come from households making over $50,000 a year, are more likely to turn to drugs than their poorer counterparts. Experts have labelled this “rich kid syndrome.” This syndrome stems from a lack of familial connections with their parents due to a number of factors, such as work schedules or an over-reliance on the “help” to raise their children. The lack of connection and overscheduled lives leads “rich kids” to turn to drugs to alleviate their mental stress.

In America, there are over 21 million people suffering from an addiction to at least one substance, 90% of whom started taking the substance before they were 18 years old. Sadly, only 10% seek treatment for their addiction. These addictions result in a loss of $740 billion a year for the U.S. economy. This loss comes from lost work, rising health care costs, and drug-related crimes. Americans committed 34.2 million DUIs in 2017; 21.4 million were alcohol related, the other 12.8 million were related to other illicit substances. Between 1990 and 2017, 700,000 Americans died from an overdose.

The age group of 18-25 are the most likely to use an addictive substance. Men within this age group are most likely to begin binge drinking on a regular basis and become alcoholics. This is in large part due to the current drinking and drug culture which exists on college campuses. Many students consider college the best time, and perhaps the only time, to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and indulge heavily in binge drinking and recreational drug use. Some feel peer pressured to partake in the drinking and drug culture to “fit in,” others use it as a way to relax and escape from the mental pressure of college classes and planning for their post-college careers.

The binge drinking culture of college correlates with the abuse of alcohol throughout the United States among all age groups. It is the most widely abused substance in the U.S. and alcoholism is often goes untreated among those who suffer from it. Every year, 1 in 20 deaths worldwide is a result of alcohol or alcohol abuse, with an average of 30 Americans dying every day in an alcohol related car accident and 6 per day from alcohol poisoning. Altogether, over 88,000 Americans die every year from alcohol related accidents. 6% of American adults (15 million people) have an alcohol use disorder, and unfortunately only 7% are seeking treatment for their disorder. There is some good news however. 2018 saw a historically low number of American high schoolers reporting drinking habits, with 18% of 10thgraders and 30% of 12th graders reported trying alcohol, compared to 25% and 39% in 2013 respectively. Despite this good news, the rate of decline in the number of high school students drinking has slowed in the past five years, causing some experts to worry that these trends may reverse.

Alongside alcohol, tobacco is another legal substance that many Americans turn to for stress relief. Around 34 million Americans smoke cigarettes in the United States: 16% of American men and 12% of American women. People with disabilities, those living below the poverty line, or those without a college education are more likely to smoke. Although these numbers have decreased from 21% of all Americans in 2005 to 14% in 2017, tobacco use and related health issues continue to cause around 480,000 deaths a year in the United States. In 2017, 604,000 students between the ages of 12 and 17, and 1.2 million between 18 and 21 tried cigarettes for the first time. This numbers, unfortunately, have grown larger as e-cigarettes and vaping has become a trend among younger generations. A study conducted by the University of Michigan found a 15% increase in the number of high school students vaping tobacco and marijuana products between 2017 and 2020.

The increased use of marijuana among high school students reflects the general increase of recreational marijuana use within the American population. 30-40 million Americans use marijuana every year, with 43% of adults admitting to trying it at least once in their lives. Among regular users, 30% have a substance use disorder. Some of the factors which have potentially led to the increase in substance use disorder among marijuana users is the increased legal access to the drug. As more states legalize marijuana, more people are willing to try it, leaving more susceptible to developing an addiction. In conjunction with increased access, the levels of THC have tripled. In 1990, the average batch of marijuana contained 4% TCH. In 2017 it was 12%.

The largest concern for health experts has been the drastic rise in the misuse of opioids in America. In 1999, the sale of opioids went up by 300%. This drastic increase in the sale of opioids is considered the beginning of the current opioid crisis plaguing Americans. In 2017, 2 million Americans admitted to misusing an opioid for the first time. Considering 191 million opioid prescriptions were given that same year, it is easy to see how 130 Americans die every day from an opioid related overdose. The problem is made worse by the availability of synthetic opioids. Most often these drugs include the incredibly addictive and dangerous substance Fentanyl. These cocktails of opioids resulted in a quadrupling of fatal overdoses between 1999 and 2019. As of 2018, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, and West Virginia were the states most affected by the opioid crisis, with the rest of the Midwest and Florida following close behind. These high rates of opioid overdoses correspond directly with high numbers of opioid prescriptions being given.

Tied closely to the abuse of opioids in America is the increased use of heroin. 5% of people with an opioid use disorder also use heroin to achieve their highs. In 2017, 886,000 Americans admitted to using heroin at least once, with 494,000 being regular users. Sadly, 15,000 people died that year from a heroin overdose. Because heroin is incredibly addictive, 25% of people who try it will end up developing an addiction.

Another drug which is being affected by the increased presence of opioids is cocaine. There are around 5 million regular users of cocaine in the United States, with 2.2 million people reporting having used it in the last month. The majority of these users are in the 18-25 age group. Sadly, there has been a 34% increase in cocaine related deaths. This has been in large part due to the mix of cocaine with synthetic opioids like Fentanyl. Nearly 1 in 5 overdoses in 2017 involved these cocktails of cocaine and opioids.

The final worrying increase in drug use comes from inhalants. These include solvents, gases, and aerosols such as nail polish, glue, hair spray, and leather cleaner. 23 million people admit to having tried them at least once, with 550,000 being regular inhalers. Because so many of these products are easily accessed around the house, there has been a drastic increase in the number of young people using them. The number of 8th graders using them doubled from 2016 to 2020. These inhalants contribute to 15% of suffocation deaths every year.

The drug crisis in America is a real threat to the safety of the nation. However, despite the dramatic rise in the number of users and the increased levels of addiction, efforts are being made to fight back and get people the help they need. Open and honest discussions about drug addiction are working to remove the stigma and shame that prevent many people from seeking treatment. Similarly, more and more people are beginning to understand that addiction is not a choice, but a mental illness that needs to be treated as such. These shifts in attitudes and perceptions, combined with increased funding for assistance programs are working to combat the drug crisis in America. Despite the dire trends over the past decade, there’s hope for a better, brighter, drug free future.

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