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SAMHSA News - November/December 2004, Volume 12, Number 6

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.

"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 drugs.

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Workplace Statistics

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 our efforts."

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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 female.

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 among youth.

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 drinkers.

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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Prescription Drugs

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 use.

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

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