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Drug Policy


An estimated 14.8 million Americans (or 6.7 percent of the population 12 years old and older) were users of illegal drugs at any given time in 1999, according to a recent survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA). Approximately 78 million Americans aged 12 or older (36 percent) reported using illicit drugs at least once in their lifetime, according to a preliminary 1998 SAMSA report.

Overall drug use trends were relatively stable in 1999 compared to the year before, but rates of drug use have dropped to roughly half the levels of the late 1970s.

According to the 1999 SAMSA National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA):

  • Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug. It is used by 75 percent of current illicit drug users.
  • About 10.4 million persons 12 to 20 years of age reported drinking alcohol in the month prior to the survey interview in 1999 (29.4 percent of this age group). Of these, 6.8 million (20.2 percent) were binge drinkers and 2.1 million (6.0 percent) were heavy drinkers.
  • The rates of current illicit drug use for major racial/ethnic groups were 6.6 percent for whites, 6.8 percent for Hispanics, and 7.7 percent for blacks. The rate was highest among the American Indian/Alaska Native population (10.6 percent) and among persons reporting multiple race (11.2 percent). Asians had the lowest rate (3.2 percent).
  • In 1999 an estimated 3.6 million Americans (1.6 percent of the total population age 12 and older) were dependent on illicit drugs. An estimated 8.2 million Americans were dependent on alcohol (3.7 percent). Of these, 1.5 million people were dependent on both alcohol and illicit drugs. Overall, an estimated 10.3 million people were dependent on either alcohol or illicit drugs (4.7 percent).
  • An estimated 2.8 million people (1.3 percent of the population age 12 and older) received some kind of drug or alcohol treatment in the 12 months prior to being interviewed in 1999. Of this group, 1.6 million (0.7 percent) received treatment for illicit drugs, and 2.3 million (1.0 percent) received treatment for alcohol.

Despite generally declining rates of drug use over the past two decades, drug arrests have been up significantly over the same time period. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, roughly 1,532,200 drug violation arrests were made in 1999, up from 580,900 in 1980.

These arrests have resulted in a dramatic increase in prison and jail populations. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 109,200 people were held in jails due to drug-related offenses in 1996, compared to 20,400 in 1983. About 236,800 people were held in state prisons for drug-related offenses in 1998, compared to 148,600 in 1990.

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