Combating Illegal Drug Use: We Can Succeed 

90% of Americans age 12 and over do not currently use any illegal drug, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants or use prescription drugs nonmedically. This speaks to the measurable, yet incomplete, success of the US effort to combat illegal drug use: 

  • Illegal drug use in the US peaked in 1979 when 14.1% of the population aged 12 and older were current users of illegal drugs.
  • In 1992, illegal drug use in the US fell to a low of 5.8%.
  • In 2016 illegal drug use reached 10.6%.

In terms of overall economic impact, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) estimated the social costs of drug abuse are over $193 billion every year. This sum includes lost productivity, health care costs, and criminal justice expenditures for all illegal drugs combined. 

The decline in illegal drug use from 1979 to the present is a major public health success and should be recognized as such. If this were any other type of public health problem, the decline in the rate of illegal drug use from 1979 would be lauded as a remarkable achievement. It is also important to recognize that the 59% drop in illicit drug use from 1979 to 1992 provides further evidence that dramatic declines in drug use are possible and worth striving for through innovative policies and programs. 

The contemporary drug epidemic is a global burden. Responding to this threat is a serious public policy challenge, one that the US has met by a remarkable investment in a strategy that balances more traditional law enforcement with a new and very large investment in treatment, prevention and research. This bipartisan strategy has produced real but modest gains including the turndown in the overall level of illegal drug use from the late 1970s.

One of the most significant factors in the decision by youth to use or not to use drugs is their perception of the harm that could come from using drugs. The perceived risk of using marijuana is a pivotal factor. The graph below shows the relationship of the perception of harm to the prevalence of marijuana use. Those who advocate for the legalization of marijuana (and the normalization of its use) claim that marijuana is harmless. They discount the growing body of research that indicates that serious mental and physical damage can be caused by marijuana. Marijuana use is especially harmful to young people in large part because the developing brain is particularly vulnerable to its effects. This information is vital to the country's efforts to reduce illegal drug use. 


The rate of marijuana use among high school seniors (a bell-weather indicator) fell 61% between 1978 and 1992. The use of drugs other than marijuana fell 71% during that time. Since this time, youth drug use, including marijuana use, has increased. 


The increase in drug use rates nationally from 1992 to 1997 was the direct result of well-funded pro-drug efforts to change the public's attitudes toward illicit drug use. In the last few years there has been a newly energized national response at the grassroots and federal policy levels that seek to protect youth from the use of the drugs by showing that illegal drug use, particularly marijuana use, is not a harmless, casual lifestyle choice. More about Prevention.

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