SOCIAL INDICATORS 2007
Until recently in American history, drug abuse was largely confined to the poor and certain subcultures. Drug abuse began to escalate and enter mainstream culture during the 1960s and 1970s. Few reliable time series statistics exist that measure levels of drug abuse over an extended period of time. The most widely used statistics come from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA). From about 1979 to 1991 these surveys were conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). From 1991 to the present the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has conducted the survey. The survey was redesigned in 1999 and again in 2001 with each change making the newer data strictly non-comparable with earlier data.
The data exists suggests that substance abuse by the overall population peaked in the late 1970s. The percentage of the population age 12 and older, that had used any illicit drug in the last month in 1979, was 14.1%. This number declined to 12.1% by 1985. Three years later that percentage had dropped to 7.9%, and by 1992 it hit a low of 5.8%. By the late 1990s the rate had leveled out at about the 6.3% range. It is possible that it has risen slightly since that time. The amount of substance abuse is likely about half the level it was twenty-five years ago.
Substance abuse by youth has been consistently measured since 1975 by an organization called Monitoring the Future at the University of Michigan. Their data reveals the following:
- The use of any illicit drugs among high school seniors peaked in 1979.
- The use of any illicit drug excluding marijuana peaked in 1981.
- Both measures hit thirty year lows in 1992.
- Both measures increased significantly over the next four years before stabilizing. (Likely due to a de-emphasis on enforcement of drug laws during the Clinton Administration.)
- Current rates are higher then a decade ago but are still as low as rates in the early 1970s.
- The 30 year peak in Alcohol use by High School Seniors was 1978.
- Alcohol use declined from 1980 until 1993. It increased slightly over four years and then has slightly declined since 1997.
- The 30 year peak in cigarette use was 1976.
- Cigarette usage dropped after 1976 until 1980 when it reached about 30% and remained there until 1993.
- Cigarette usage experienced a brief spike from 1994-1997 but has since declined to its lowest rate in thirty years.
- Present usage of both Alcohol and Cigarettes is about one-third lower than their 1978 and 1976 respective highs.
The survey data does not include High School dropouts or absentees. Drug abuse is believed to be much higher among this population but dropouts are a small and shrinking portion of youth population. While drug use is undoubtedly much higher than it was before the mid-1960s it is lower by nearly 40% from the late 1970s. There is no evidence of a wide spread drug abuse epidemic in the schools or among youth in general. The one caveat in this is the improper use of prescription drugs. There is evidence that this activity may be increasing but I’ve seen no definitive data.
Rates of substance abuse give a mixed message since they have fluctuated over the last decade but they have been in decline over the long-term. These indicators suggests a stabilized, if not improving, quality of life as it relates to the use illicit drugs, ciagrettes, and alcohol.