How Many Americans Are Addicted to Drugs?Substance use problems are an ongoing concern throughout the United States. In the past, experts divided these problems into two separate categories: addiction and non-addiction abuse. However, today, substance issues get grouped together under a single heading known as substance use disorder[i]. When addressing the topic of how many Americans are addicted to drugs, it helps to look at the different types of substance use disorders.

Addiction, Abuse and Substance Use Disorder

All people affected by substance addiction have a chronic brain disease triggered by the excessive use of certain drugs or medications. The most common culprits include:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioid medications
  • Opioid street drugs
  • Cocaine
  • Benzodiazepine tranquilizers
  • Methamphetamine
  • Marijuana/cannabis

Addiction is marked by some core symptoms. Chief among these symptoms are loss of control over substance intake, increased tolerance to the effects of substance use and the development of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms (i.e., withdrawal) when the brain doesn’t receive its accustomed substance supply.

The same substances responsible for triggering addiction can also play a role in the development of a non-addicted pattern of abuse. Common symptoms of this pattern include substance-related problems at work, at home or at school. They also include repeated substance use in hazardous circumstances and continuation of substance intake despite exposure to obviously negative aftereffects. However, unlike a person dealing with addictions, someone dealing with non-addicted abuse doesn’t have a physical need to maintain a certain level of substance consumption.

Statistically speaking, anyone coping with addiction stands a good chance of experiencing at least some symptoms of non-addicted substance abuse. The reverse also holds true to some degree. To account for this overlap of symptoms, U.S. doctors and public health officials use the term substance use disorder. A person affected by this disorder may have any possible combination of addiction- and/or abuse-related problems.

How Many People Are Affected?

Federal researchers at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) release annual figures on the number of Americans dealing with some form of drug-related substance use disorder. In 2016, the total number affected was roughly 7,400,000 people over the age of 11[ii]. The substance-by-substance breakdown was:

Heroin – Roughly 626,000 Americans suffer from heroin addiction/abuse. More than two-thirds of those affected (470,000) are over the age of 25. People between the ages of 18 and 25 make up nearly all the remaining affected population (152,000).

Opioid Painkillers – Misuse of opioid painkillers is much more widespread that heroin use. Currently, roughly 1.8 million Americans have diagnosable painkiller problems. Well over a million of those affected are at least 26 years old. Much smaller numbers of 18- to 25-year-olds (291,000) and preteens and younger teens (152,000) share the same issues.

Marijuana – Nearly four million Americans have addiction/abuse problems related to the use of marijuana. Roughly 584,000 of those affected were preteens and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. Another 1.7 million of those affected were young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Marijuana addiction/abuse also affected 1.7 million Americans over the age of 25.

Cocaine – Diagnosable addiction/abuse impacted about 867,000 cocaine users in 2016. Roughly 29,000 of these people are between the ages of 12 and 17. The numbers rise sharply (to about 215,000) for young adults below the age of 26. More than 620,000 adults age 26 or older have serious cocaine problems.

Tranquilizers (Sedatives) – Roughly 343,000 Americans over the age of 25 have diagnosable symptoms of tranquilizer abuse/addiction. The same problem affects about 188,000 people in their late-teen or early adult years. In addition, approximately 86,000 American preteens and teens below the age of 18 suffer from tranquilizer-related problems.

Methamphetamine – Methamphetamine abuse/addiction affects approximately 684,000 U.S. preteens, teenagers and adults. As with almost all other varieties of substance problems, the greatest number of those affected (roughly 539,000) have already passed their 26th birthdays. Just 10,000 preteens and younger teens suffer from meth-related problems, with the remaining 135,000 falling in an age range between 18 and 25.

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Overlap With Alcohol-Related Problems

Most people (5.1 million) dealing with drug-related or medication-related abuse/addiction do not have any overlapping problems with alcohol. However, roughly 2.3 million people with drug/medication problems also meet the criteria for an alcohol-related diagnosis. Overall, alcohol abuse and addiction are much more common than drug/medication abuse addiction.

Age Distribution

As noted, in terms of sheer numbers, people over the age of 25 make up the single largest group of Americans with diagnosable symptoms of drug abuse/addiction. However, by percentage, problems occur more often in older teens and younger adults age 18 to 25. All told, a little over 15 percent of all people in this relatively narrow age range are affected. In contrast, just 6.6 percent of all people age 26 or older have such problems. Just 4.3 percent of all people age 12 to 17 have diagnosable drug/medication-related symptoms.

How Many People Receive Treatment?

Out of the many millions of Americans dealing with serious drug, medication or alcohol problems, less than four million receive help in the form of substance treatment. A little more than half of those who get help receive treatment in a facility created to address substance problems. The rest gets help from a general physician or some other professional who does not specialize in abuse/addiction-related issues.

Treatment Is Available

Doctors and other healthcare professionals have effective methods for dealing with almost all varieties of substance abuse and substance addiction[iii]. In many cases, treatment takes the form of a medication designed to deal with specific symptoms or reduce the tendency to drink or take drugs. In others, it takes the form of psychotherapy or behavioral therapy. Addiction specialists often combine the use of medication and therapy.

If you or your loved one are facing any form of drug abuse or addiction, Transformations Treatment Center has the expertise needed to carry out effective treatment programs that produces tangible results. We offer a variety of recovery services to help you or your loved one get on the road to recovery.

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Substance Use Disorders
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States – Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Drugs, Brains and Behavior – The Science of Addiction – Treatment and Recovery
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