Drug Abuse in the States

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Drug abuse is an ever-growing epidemic in the United States. In a series of research briefs, CSG will examine the effects of drug abuse on the states through incarceration, treatment and the workforce.

Drug abuse, also known as substance abuse, is when a user consumes a drug that is harmful to their body. The consumption of the drug happens in a patterned fashion, and the user is aware of the effects that the drug has on their body. Why would someone abuse drugs knowing that they are harmful to their body?  The answer is simple: addiction results from the patterned use of drugs. Addiction is the driving force for consuming these harmful drugs; it fuels the epidemic that America faces today.

Drug abuse in the United States reaches far back in time. In the 1800’s, drugs such as morphine, cocaine and heroin were hailed for their medicinal properties. By the end of the 20th century, illegal drug use dwindled drastically. Between the years 1980 and 1984, there were 1.3 million new cocaine users each year.1 By 1994, this number decreased down to 533,000 new cocaine users every year.  However, the introduction of drugs such as hallucinogens and amphetamines only caused the epidemic to grow again.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 2002 and 2015 the number of overdose deaths in the United States has increased from 16,849 to 52,404. Prescription drugs accounted for the largest majority of overdose deaths in 2015 with a total of 29,728 deaths. Prescription opioids far outnumbers other prescription drugs with 22,598 deaths in 2015.2  This should be no surprise due to the fact that Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply.3

The demographic that abuses prescription drugs the most is young adults (age 18-25). Some of the top prescription drugs abused by this population includes ADHD medications, opioids and anti-anxiety medications. More than 1,700 young adults in the United States died in 2014 from prescription overdoses. This equates to 5 young adults dying per day in 2014 due to prescription drug abuse.4

It should also be noted that more men than women die from overdoses regardless of drug; however, women have had larger percent increases in overdoses for almost all drugs. Opioid overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015 increased by 583 percent for women, but only by 400 percent for men.1

Recent trends in drug abuse and overdoses are related to the opioid, fentanyl. In New Hampshire, the number of fentanyl related deaths between 2014 and 2015 nearly doubled. Fentanyl also accounts for two-thirds  of all drug related deaths in this state.5 In Ohio, drug overdose deaths related to fentanyl increased from 84 in 2013 to 502 in 2014.6 This year, Ohio’s capital city of Columbus is seeing approximately one death per day related to a fentanyl overdose.7

Fentanyl is a drug that is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Another large culprit behind these overdose deaths is the drug carfentanil, a drug similar to fentanyl. This drug is actually intended for elephants and packs a punch 100 times greater than fentanyl, and 10,000 times stronger than morphine. Thus, a miniscule amount of this drug unknowingly mixed in with other drugs can easily cause an overdose.

Since opioids are the most prevalent drug abused in the United States, many task forces and programs have combined regionally to combat the problem. Massachusetts established an opioid task force in 2014,8 followed by Michigan in 2015.9 In May of this year, President Trump released his own plans for an opioid task force, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie serving as chair.

The primary concern of the drug abuse epidemic is clearly the loss of lives, but state leaders should also be examining costs states are facing. Imprisonment of drug offenders constitutes a large portion of this cost. As of June 2017, it is estimated that approximately 46 percent of total imprisonments in the United States are due to drug offenses.10 A study published in 2012 found that if just 10 percent of inmates with drug offenses were sent to treatment centers instead of being incarcerated, $4.8 billion could be saved compared to the practices currently in place in the criminal justice system.11 Thus, developing state-specific policies for drug offender incarceration can potentially save the state a large amount of money.   

California is an example of a state that has enacted legislation to potentially save money by providing substance abuse treatment rather than incarceration. In 2000, California voters approved the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act. This act provides probation with addiction treatment for those who have been convicted of non-violent drug offenses in place of incarceration.  A study was conducted to find the total savings of the act during its first year.  For the 61,609 drug offenders who were eligible for this program between July 1, 2001, and June 30, 2002, the act led to a net savings of $173.3 million for the government.12

While cost is a large concern for state leaders, decreasing recidivism rates in each state is also vital to society. Decreasing these rates can be accomplished through assisting drug offenders in obtaining a place in the workforce. In 2014, Georgia was awarded a $6.75 million federal grant to promote workforce re-entry services for drug offenders who have gone through rehabilitation. The goal of this grant is to reduce recidivism rates in this state, which are all part of Gov. Deal’s commitment to criminal justice reform.13

Drug abuse is an epidemic that continues to grow in the United States. As more legislative efforts are taken to diminish the abuse of prescription painkillers, new drugs will start to be abused. Whether it be a different prescription medication or an illicit drug, people will continue to fuel their addiction. That is why state leaders must continue to explore innovative approaches to combat the drug abuse epidemic like treatment centers and addiction programs.



1 http://drugabuse.com/library/history-of-drug-abuse/

2 https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-deat...

3 http://lab.express-scripts.com/lab/insights/drug-safety-and-abuse/americ...

4 https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/...

5 https://ndews.umd.edu/featuredcontent/1725

6 http://mha.ohio.gov/Portals/0/assets/Initiatives/GCOAT/092015-fentanyl-b...

7 http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/fentanyl-crisis-columbus-ohio-has-on...

8 http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/substance-abuse/opioid/report-of-the-...

9 http://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/Presciption_Drug_and_Opioid_Tas...

10 https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp

11 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128712461904

12 http://sentencing.nj.gov/downloads/pdf/0426_doc2.pdf

13 https://gov.georgia.gov/press-releases/2014-10-01/deal-state-awarded-675...

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