The big news from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health is that teens are smoking less pot following legalization. But what else does it reveal about the extent of marijuana use in the United States?
The annual survey, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), reports on the number of users of both legal and illegal drugs. It provides population estimates (the number of users) and prevalence estimates (the percentage of the population using a drug).
These estimates are for persons aged 12 and over. The survey has been conducted annually for several decades, though in the 1970s and early 1980s it was conducted every three years. In addition to drug use, the survey also reports on several related issues. The data is released in two waves—the first wave consists of a series of tables reporting population and prevalence data; the second wave follows later and consists of the complete data set from the survey.
The first wave of data from the 2016 survey was released in early September.
The basic format for presenting user estimates uses three categories: lifetime use, annual use and monthly use. These categories present data on the answers to three questions. Have you ever used this drug, have you used this drug in the last year and/or have you used this drug in the last month?
There is other data collected, for example, they also report data on daily use, but these three categories provide the standard format for keeping track of trends in the use of both legal and illegal drugs.
Nearly half (48.5 percent) of Americans over the age of 12 have used an illicit drug sometime in their life, which is 130.6 million people. When it comes to use of an illicit drug in the past year, 18 percent of Americans acknowledge some drug use (48.5 million) and 10.6 percent report past month use of an illicit drug (28.5 million).
Marijuana has always been the most popular illegal drug, with 118.5 million lifetime users, 37.6 million past year users and close to 24 million past month users. In terms of prevalence, that means that 44 percent of Americans have used marijuana at least once in their lifetime, that currently 13.9 percent have used it in the last year and 8.9 percent in the last month.
How does this compare to other illicit drugs?
In terms of past year usage, again the total number of people who used illicit drugs in the past year (in 2016) was 48.5 million.
Here is the breakdown by illicit drug, and some people have used more than one: marijuana—37.6 million, cocaine—5 million, heroin—948,000, LSD—1.9 million, PCP—103,000, ecstasy—2.5 million, inhalants—1.6 million, methamphetamine—1.4 million, illicitly obtained pain relievers—11.5 million, illicitly obtained tranquilizers—6 million, illicitly obtained stimulants—5.6 million, and illicitly obtained sedatives—1.5 million.
Combining the totals for heroin and pain relieve use provides a figure of 11.8 million users of illicit opioids.
It is clear from these figures that absent marijuana, the population of illicit drug users shrinks enormously, from 48.5 million past year users to about 11 million users. Without illegal marijuana, the War on Drugs is a much smaller problem, in terms of sheer numbers, and this would have a tremendous impact on public perception and funding for anti-drug efforts.
Another important aspect of the survey data is just how few marijuana users are teenagers.
Out of 37.6 million past year users, only 3 million are between the ages of 12 and 17. Out of 24 million past month marijuana users, only 1.8 million are teenagers. What does this say about arguments that marijuana must be illegal to keep kids from using it, when over 90 percent of users are adults?
First, the illegality of marijuana has clearly not prevented these teens from using marijuana. Second, can the criminalization of nearly 35 million adults be justified on the dubious premise that teen use would be significantly higher under legalization?
Part 2 of this column will look at additional marijuana-related data from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.