Illicit Drug Use

Publication Date:

Dec 07, 2018

Key facts about illicit drug use

  • The proportion of students in twelfth grade who reported using illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year fell from 34 percent in 1981 to 13 percent in 2017.
  • In 2017, a higher percentage of non-Hispanic white students in the tenth and twelfth grades (10 and 15 percent, respectively) used illicit drugs in the past year, relative to non-Hispanic black students (6 and 9 percent, respectively).
  • In 2017, 18 percent of tenth graders who did not plan to complete four years of college used illicit drugs in the past year, compared to 8 percent of their peers who did plan to complete college.

Trends in illicit drug use

The self-reported use of illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year among twelfth graders declined from 34 percent in 1981 to 15 percent in 1992. It then increased during the 1990s, peaking at 22 percent in 2001, before decreasing slowly to 2009 and remaining relatively steady at around 17 percent. The decline resumed in 2013 and continued through 2017. In 2017, around 13 percent of twelfth graders reported using illicit drugs other than marijuana. The percentage of tenth graders reporting use of illicit drugs other than marijuana increased during the early 1990s, then held steady between 17 and 18 percent until 2001. From 2001 to 2017, this proportion decreased from 18 to 9 percent. Among eighth graders, the share of students reporting use of illicit drugs other than marijuana increased in the early 1990s, peaking at 13 percent in 1996, but that rate has slowly but steadily declined ever since, sitting at 6 percent in 2017 (Appendix 1).

Differences by gender

In 2017, females in eighth grade were more likely than males to report using illicit drugs in the past year (7 versus 4 percent). No such distinction was observed among tenth graders. Among twelfth graders, the relationship shifted: In 2017, 15 percent of males reported illicit drug use in the past year, compared with 11 percent of females (Appendix 1).

Differences by race and Hispanic origin1

Non-Hispanic white students in the tenth and twelfth grades are more likely than non-Hispanic black students to report using illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year, a gap that increases with age. For example, from 2016 to 2017, approximately 6 percent of non-Hispanic black tenth graders reported using illicit drugs within the last year, compared with 10 percent of non-Hispanic white tenth graders. In twelfth grade, 9 percent of non-Hispanic black students used illicit drugs other than marijuana, compared with 15 percent of their non-Hispanic white peers. There was no difference in the rate of reported illicit drug use between non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white students in eighth grade.

From 2016 to 2017, Hispanic students at all grade levels were more likely than non-Hispanic black students to report using illicit drugs other than marijuana. Hispanic students were more likely than non-Hispanic white students to have used illicit drugs other than marijuana in eighth grade. However, by twelfth grade, non-Hispanic white students, on average, were slightly more likely than Hispanic students to report using illicit drugs (Appendix 1). Some of this disparity could reflect differences in dropout rates between Hispanic and non-Hispanic drug users.2

Differences by college plans

Students who plan to complete four years of college are less likely to report having used illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year than those who do not plan to complete college. In 2017, 5 percent of eighth graders planning to complete four years of college had used illicit drugs in the past year, compared with 11 percent of eighth graders without such plans. Among tenth graders, 8 percent of those planning to complete college had used illicit drugs, compared with 18 percent of those not planning to do so. By twelfth grade, 12 percent of those planning to complete four years of college reported using illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year, compared with 16 percent of those not planning to complete college (Appendix 1).

Differences by parental education

Among eighth graders in 2017, students whose parents had less than a high school education were more likely to report using illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year, relative to their peers with more educated parents. However, at twelfth grade, students whose parents had less than a high school education had the lowest proportion of reported illicit drug use (Appendix 1).

Other estimates

State and local estimates

• 2017 estimates for reported use among high school students of individual illicit drugs are available for selected states and metropolitan areas through the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, available at http://nccd.cdc.gov/YouthOnline/App/Default.aspx.
• State estimates for use among 12- to 17-year-olds of any illicit drug other than marijuana are available for all 50 states for 2015–2016 from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse at https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHsaePercents2016/NSDUHsaePercents2016.pdf [Table 6].
NOTE: Estimates of drug use from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and Youth Risk Behavior Survey, used to generate these state-level estimates, are generally lower than estimates generated by the Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF). The MTF was the source of the national estimates presented in this indicator, and users should not make direct comparisons of estimates made from the two sources. For information on methodological differences in the surveys that may be causing these differences in estimates, see Harrison, L. D. (2001). Understanding the differences in youth drug prevalence rates produced by the MTF, NHSDA, and YRBS studies. Journal of Drug Issues, 31(3), 665–694.

International estimates

• International estimates of lifetime illicit drug use and lifetime use of various illicit drugs are available from the European School Survey on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) 2015 report, available at http://www.espad.org/report/home.
• Prevalence data on illicit drug use across different countries are available through the 2017 UN World Drug Report, available at https://www.unodc.org/wdr2017.

Data and appendices

Data source

Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., et al. (2018). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2017: Volume 1: Secondary school students [Table 4-6] (NIH Publication No. R01 DA 001411). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research. Retrieved from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/mtf-vol1_2017.pdf.

Raw data source

The Monitoring the Future Survey.
http://www.monitoringthefuture.org

Appendices

Appendix 1. Percentage of Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth Graders Who Report They Used Any Illicit Drugs Other than Marijuana in the Past Twelve Months, by Grade: 1976–2017

Background

Definition

For twelfth graders, use of “any illicit drug other than marijuana” includes any use of LSD or other hallucinogens, cocaine, heroin or any use of other narcotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, or tranquilizers not under a doctor’s orders. For eight and tenth graders, use of “any illicit drug other than marijuana” includes any use of LSD, other hallucinogens, crack or other cocaine, heroin, or any use of amphetamines or tranquilizers not under a doctor’s orders. The use of other narcotics and barbiturates has been excluded, because these younger respondents appear to over-report use (perhaps because they include the use of nonprescription drugs in their answers).3

Students who use illicit drugs are defined as those who answered anything other than “none” to the question “On how many occasions (if any) have you used {drug} during the last 12 months?” for any of the drugs mentioned above.

Citation

Child Trends. (2018). Illicit Drug Use. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/illicit-drug-use-2.

Endnotes

1. To provide more stable estimates of percentages for each racial/ethnic subgroup, data for the specified year and the previous year have been combined. Estimates for white and black youth exclude Hispanic youth and youth of two or more races. Hispanic youth include persons identifying as Mexican American or Chicano, Cuban American, Puerto Rican, or Other Hispanic or Latino, and no other racial/ethnic group.
2. Swaim, R. C., Beauvais, F., Chavez, E. L., & Oetting, E. R. (1997). The effect of school dropout rates on estimates of adolescent substance use among three racial/ethnic groups. American Journal of Public Health, 87(1), 51–55.
3. Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2011). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2010: Volume 1: Secondary school students [Table 4-7, Footnote a]. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research. Retrieved from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/mtf-vol1_2010.pdf.