Drug Abuse Statistics: The Numbers Behind the Epidemic

We often hear about the opioid epidemic, which we will discuss below, but the United States faces more than just a problem with opioid use. We’re in the midst of a drug abuse epidemic in general. Indicators show it seems to be getting worse.

It’s likely as we learn more about the impact of the pandemic, we’ll also find that it significantly worsened the issue of substance abuse in the United States We already see some of the pandemic-related drug and alcohol use numbers, and they’re difficult. The illicit drug abuse epidemic impacts social and economic well-being and public health.

So what’s the reality behind the substance use disorder statistics, and how did it all happen?

Drug Abuse Statistics

According to national survey results, illegal drug use has been increasing across generations, demographics, and genders in the U.S.

It’s incredibly challenging even to know the full scope of people with a substance use disorder. Even based on what we do know according to self-reporting and overdoses, it’s alarming.

Along with deaths from the pandemic, 2020 appears to have been the deadliest ever in American history for drug use and drug addiction.

Related drug abuse statistics include:

  • The number of overdoses in 2020 hit record highs.
  • Oregon saw a 40% spike in drug deaths. Opioids were one factor, but there was a significant uptick in using other substances like meth. Cocaine deaths went up by 57%, and fentanyl contributed to 92% of these drug deaths.
  • Virginia is another state dealing with the fallout from record deaths related to drug abuse. More than 2,030 deaths occurred from overdoses in 2020, well over the state’s previous record of 1,626.

The states above are only examples. Most other states had similar issues.

We understand some of the reasons that 2020 was a particularly tragic year regarding substance abuse and associated deaths. People were isolated and dealing with declines in mental health because of the pandemic and its ripple effects.

Along with rises in substance abuse deaths, suicides have also been soaring.

Mental illness stemming from stress, financial insecurity, anxiety, depression, and poor coping mechanisms can lead to people abusing substances to self-medicate.

It’s unfortunate because there was a brief decline in overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018. The decline was modest at 4.1%, but still, it indicated to many that maybe things were turning a corner until the year 2020 began.

  • Overdoses went up more than 18% from the 12 months that ended in June 2019.
  • In 2020, there were 81,000 reported drug overdoses, the highest ever recorded.
  • While we talk primarily about overdoses because they’re a metric that can be quantified, even when someone doesn’t overdose, they may still be using drugs.
  • According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, at least 11.7% of the population was actively using drugs in 2018—a number that’s likely higher now.

The above statistics don’t even consider heavy drinking and alcohol addiction, also on the rise.

The Most Commonly Used Drugs

Popular drugs as far as abuse include:


Marijuana is also called cannabis. While marijuana isn’t legal federally, it is legal for recreational and medicinal use in many states despite its potential for abuse.

A national survey on drug use and health shows that attitudes toward legalization and marijuana use are changing, but it’s not a drug without consequence.

This common drug can trigger psychosis in people vulnerable to the condition. The use of cannabis can also impair learning and memory and damage the lungs. People who begin using it as teens are anywhere from four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.

Prescriptions and OTC Medications

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are among the deadliest and most misused drugs in the country and contribute to numerous drug overdose deaths.

Prescription opioids fall into this category, as do stimulants like Adderall.

There are also central nervous system depressants that are part of the problem with prescription drug abuse. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax have exceptionally high abuse rates, and there is a potential for addiction and physical dependence, even when you have a prescription.


Heroin is a highly deadly, illicit opioid. In 2016, around 948,000 Americans reported they’d used heroin in the past year.

The age group driving that trend most appears to be young people between 18 and 25. At one point, heroin was predominantly in urban areas.

Now heroin use is seen in rural and suburban communities.


For a while, methamphetamine use was going down in the United States, but that’s a trend that appears to, unfortunately, be reversing.

Meth-related deaths are rising across the country, despite the country focusing primarily on the opioid epidemic.

Among minority groups and, in particular, native populations, the rates are going up even faster. Among American Indians and Alaska Natives, deadly meth overdoses have more than quadrupled in recent years.

Black Americans are also experiencing an increase in meth-related deaths. These trends are being seen across all Americans too, but at a lesser rate, as meth increasingly becomes a drug of choice for some.

The Opioid Epidemic

While the use of drugs like meth is going up, the opioid epidemic remains the most troubling issue regarding drug abuse statistics.

Since 1999, more than 841,000 people deaths have been the result of a drug overdose. In 2019, more than 70% of overdose deaths included the involvement of an opioid.

Opioids include prescription pain relievers like oxycodone and hydrocodone. Heroin is an opioid, as are synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Fentanyl is especially problematic right now because even a minuscule amount can be fatal.

Drug Abuse

Drug Abuse Statistics: Behind the Epidemic

Teenage Drug Abuse Statistics

Teens certainly aren’t immune to the damaging effects of drug abuse and addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adolescents most often use alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. For young people using drugs or other substances, the risks can be exceptionally high.

  • The teenage brain develops until we’re in our 20s. Teen substance abuse may lead to adverse effects on brain development and even brain damage.
  • Teen drug abuse also contributes to physical health problems later in life, such as heart disease, sleep disorders, and high blood pressure.
  • When they begin using substances and experience the influence of drugs or alcohol, the younger a teen is, the higher the chances they develop a substance use disorder and ultimately become addicted.
  • Statistics show that 12th graders and even kids aged 12 and up report trying illicit drugs like heroin, in addition to alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. That use among high school seniors and younger students increases the potential for full-blow addiction, like an alcohol use disorder, as well as drug overdose deaths.

Why Do Drug Abuse Statistics Show Increasing Use Rates?

One reason that drug abuse rates seem to be going up is one we talk about above, which is the pandemic. However, the trends were moving upward even before COVID-19.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Mental Health Services Administration, it’s likely a complex situation with many factors contributing.

Economic disparities, a lack of access to health care, and accessibility maybe some of those factors. It also seems that mental health disorders are on the rise in the U.S., like anxiety and depression.

Mental disorders tend to occur more prevalently in people who use substances, although it’s sometimes unclear which comes first. If you have a mental health disorder, you could use illegal street drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol as a coping mechanism. The effects of substances themselves can also trigger mental health disorders.

While the above picture can be dismal regarding the rates of substance use and even teenage drug addiction, and there are large-scale factors that may be out of our control, we can take control of our lives and our health. If you’d like to explore substance abuse treatment options or speak to an addiction specialist, call 408-547-4089 and a care coordinator from the Silicon Valley Recovery team will answer your questions, and talk more about effective treatment programs.

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