2003 Survey: Marijuana Use Drops Among Youth, Risk Perceptions Climb
Marijuana use among American youth age 12 to 17 is on
the decline, while perception of risk associated with this
drug has increased, according to findings from SAMHSA's
2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). These
and other survey findings, presented at the launch of the
Agency's 15th annual Recovery Month activities, were released
in early September.
Administrator Charles G. Curie introduced the 2003
National Survey on Drug Use and Health at the launch
of the Agency's 15th annual Recovery Month activities
at the National Press Club in September. Seated are
H. Westley Clark, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., Director of
SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and
Deni Carise, Ph.D., Director of Treatment Systems,
Treatment Research Institute, and Clinical Professor,
University of Pennsylvania.
(Photo by Martín Castillo)
"While most of the findings from the 2003 National
Survey are moving in the right direction, they show how
much work still remains to be done to stop drug use before
it starts and to heal America's drug users," said
SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W.
The survey shows that while there was not a statistically
significant change in overall current illicit drug use
or in current use of any specific drugs, there were important
shifts in some measures for youth. For example, in addition
to a decline in lifetime marijuana use among youth age
12 to 17, from 20.6 percent in 2002 to 19.6 percent in
2003, past-year use of ecstasy dropped by 41 percent
and past-year use of LSD dropped by 54 percent.
Overall, 19.5 million Americans age 12 and older—8
percent of this population—currently use illicit
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The 2003 survey findings show that more than three-quarters
of adults who have a serious substance abuse problem
are employed, which challenges the stereotype that the
typical drug user is poor and unemployed. More specifically,
of the 19 million adults age 18 and older characterized
with a serious alcohol or drug problem in 2003, 77 percent—or
14.9 million people—were employed either part time
or full time.
"Amazingly, 90 percent of these workers didn't
recognize they had a problem," Mr. Curie said. "Employers
who think alcohol and drug abuse will never be a problem
in their workplace need to consider the facts. With these
new data, it is clear why the workplace is a focus of
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According to data from the 2003 survey, marijuana continues
to be the most commonly used illicit drug, with 14.6
million current users, which represents 6.2 percent of
the population—the same as in 2002. The survey
also shows an estimated 2.6 million people who tried
marijuana for the first time in 2002—two-thirds
of these new users were under age 18. About half were
Both youth and young adults reported a significant
increase in their awareness of the risks of smoking marijuana.
Consistent with this shift, there was a 20-percent decline
between 2002 and 2003 in the number of youth who were
"heavy users" of marijuana (those smoking either
daily or 20 or more days per month).
Despite an increase in perceptions of great risk of
once-a-month marijuana use among youth age 12 to 17,
there was no significant change from 2002 to 2003 in
past-month use among youth (8.2 percent to 7.9 percent).
Perceived availability of marijuana also declined significantly
Youth who believed that their parents would "strongly
disapprove" of marijuana reported rates of use 80
percent lower than those who reported that their parents
would not "strongly disapprove" (5.4 percent
vs. 28.7 percent).
"Young people are getting the message that marijuana,
which is substantially more potent today than it was
20 years ago, is a dangerous drug, and they are staying
away from it," said John Walters, Director of the
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a
featured speaker at the Recovery Month launch.
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The numbers of binge drinkers and heavy drinkers did
not change between 2002 and 2003. About 54 million Americans
age 12 and older participated in binge drinking at least
once in the 30 days prior to being surveyed. The highest
prevalence of binge and heavy drinking in 2003 was reported
among young adults age 18 to 25, with both binge and
heavy drinking at their peak at age 21.
Underage drinking remains a "stubborn and destructive
problem," said Mr. Curie.
There were 10.9 million drinkers under legal age (age
12 to 20) in the month prior to the survey interview
in 2003. This number represents 29 percent of this age
group. Of these, nearly 7.2 million (19.2 percent) were
binge drinkers and 2.3 million (6.1 percent) were heavy
In terms of alcohol initiation rates, reports from
2001 (the most recent year for which estimates are available)
indicate that 5.3 million Americans used alcohol for
the first time. "Most of these new alcohol users—88
percent—were under the legal drinking age of 21,"
Mr. Curie said.
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The 2003 NSDUH results also reported on non-medical
use of prescription pain relievers. Overall, current
non-medical use of prescription pain relievers remained
stable from 2002 to 2003; however, a 5-percent increase
in lifetime use was reported for the population age 12
and older, with young adults (age 18 to 25) experiencing
a 15-percent increase in lifetime use as well as current
This 2003 NSDUH report is based on interviews with
67,784 respondents age 12 and older surveyed in home
settings, which includes people residing in dormitories
or homeless shelters. Not included in the survey are
persons on active military duty and in prisons.
For a copy of the survey, contact SAMHSA's National
Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at P.O.
Box 2345, Rockville, MD 20847-2345. Telephone: 1 (800)
729-6686 (English and Spanish) or 1 (800) 487-4889 (TDD).
Online, the publication is available at www.oas.samhsa.gov.
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