More Americans using pot, opioids as smoking rate falls

More Americans using pot, opioids as smoking rate falls
© Getty

More Americans are using marijuana and abusing opioids, even as fewer are smoking tobacco products or abusing alcohol, a new government report finds. 

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows about 1 in 10 Americans reported using an illicit drug in the last month. The vast majority — about 24 million — reported pot use.


Marijuana use is on the rise among those over the age of 25, the report found, but those between the ages of 18 and 25 are most likely to have used pot recently. One in five 18- to 25-year-olds reported using marijuana in the last month. 

Seven percent of those over 25 have used pot, up from about 4 percent a decade ago.

The spike in marijuana usage comes after voters in eight states and the District of Columbia chose to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Pot sales are underway in Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Nevada, while regulators are working to implement legal marijuana programs in California, Massachusetts and Maine.

Experts who analyzed the government data said marijuana alone is responsible for an increase in overall drug use.

“If it wasn’t for marijuana, drug use overall in the country would be down,” said Kevin Sabet, who heads Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization efforts. “Instead, daily use is much higher — double — than it was a decade ago.” 

Legalization advocates pointed to another finding in the report, that the number of children between 12 and 17 who say they used marijuana in the last month has fallen. The percentage of that group who reported using pot, 6.5 percent, is the lowest since the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration began keeping track in 2002.

“Critics of legalization worry about the message being sent to youth by marijuana policy reform efforts, but the real message is that marijuana should only be used by responsible adults, and it seems to be sinking in,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which backs legalization. “Regulating marijuana for adults reinforces that message and creates effective mechanisms for making it more difficult for teens to obtain marijuana.”

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department came to what amounted to a hands-off agreement with states where marijuana is legal for recreational use. But under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDemocrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases Unsealed documents detail Trump and Biden efforts on reporter records MORE has signaled he may rescind that agreement and crack down on states where marijuana is legal.

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has said it will release state-level data from the national survey later this year, to shed light on whether states where marijuana is legal are effectively blocking younger users from access to pot.

Rafael Lemaitre, a former drug control policy official in the Obama administration, pointed to findings that showed about 4 million Americans show signs of substance abuse disorder related to their marijuana use. Someone who experiences physical or mental health problems or fails to meet work or school obligations because of their substance use qualifies for an abuse disorder. 

The report also found nearly 12 million Americans over the age of 12 misused opioids in the past year. Thirteen percent of those, or more than a million Americans, said they abused opioids specifically to get high, and more than half of abusers said they got their drugs from a friend or relative.

“High rates of illegal drug use, driven by marijuana and prescription drug misuse, create very real consequences that stretch far beyond individual users themselves,” Lemaitre said. “They burden our health systems and cost taxpayers millions in social costs.”

The opioid crisis, and the associated spike in the use of drugs like heroin and fentanyl, are killing tens of thousands of Americans each year.  

Drug overdoses killed about 64,000 Americans last year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than the 58,220 Americans who died during the entirety of the Vietnam War, and nearly three times as high as the 22,441 Americans who died in traffic crashes in 2015, the last year for which figures are available.

The report also found the number of Americans who smoke cigarettes on a regular basis continues to decline, from about a quarter a decade ago to about one in five today. The decline is most pronounced among those between the ages of 18 and 25, where smoking rates have tumbled by nearly half over the last decade. And even among those over the age of 25, smoking rates have dropped by about 5 percentage points.

Alcohol abuse is also following a positive trend, declining among all age groups and especially among those between 18 and 25. Still, 15 million Americans abuse alcohol, the report found.