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Adolescent drug use in the U.S. - Statistics & Facts

Drug use in the United States remains a significant problem across all genders, ethnicities, and ages. However, adolescent drug use is particularly damaging as such use can affect the physical and mental development of younger people and can impact their opportunities later in life. In 1991, approximately 30.4 percent of those in school grades 8, 10, and 12 had used illicit drugs at some point in their lives. This number reached a high of 43.3 percent in 1997, but dropped down to around 27 percent in 2021. Marijuana and alcohol are the most used illicit drugs among adolescents in the United States, with around 70 percent of 12th graders perceiving marijuana as fairly easy to obtain, compared to around 17 percent of those perceiving the same for cocaine. Cocaine use among high school students is higher among males than females and more common among lesbian, gay, or bisexual students than their heterosexual classmates.

Marijuana and alcohol use

Thirty-day prevalence rates of marijuana use for school grades 8, 10, and 12 dropped to 11 percent in 2021, the lowest rate seen in the past two decades. High school student marijuana use is slightly higher among males than females, and almost equally prevalent among Black, White, and Hispanic youths. Rates of alcohol use among teens have similarly declined since the early 1990's. In 2020, around 16 percent of males and 17 percent of females aged 12 to 20 years had drank alcohol in the past month.

What are study drugs?

Study drugs, or smart drugs, are prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall that are generally used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but can be used recreationally to increase concentration and boost energy. However, around 42 percent of students in grade 12 thought trying Adderall occasionally posed a great risk for harm, and annual prevalence rates of Adderall use among those in grades 8, 10, and 12 have generally decreased in recent years. Similarly, overall rates of Ritalin use have also generally decreased since 2001. In 2021, around 1.7 percent of U.S. students in grades 8, 10, and 12 stated they had used Adderall in the past year, while .5 percent said they had used Ritalin

Drug overdose deaths among young people

Despite decreases in general drug use among adolescents, the death rate due to drug overdose among those aged 15 to 24 years has increased. In 2020, there were 7,095 overdose deaths recorded among those aged 15 to 24 years, compared to 4,777 in 2019. Heroin, prescription opioids, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl are the drugs most commonly involved in overdose deaths and are the main drivers of this increase in deaths. However, those aged 0 to 24 years account for the smallest share of overall deaths due to opioid overdose in the United States, with only seven percent of opioid overdose deaths in 2019 occuring among this age group.


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