The Demographics of Drug Use, Abuse & Addiction: Generation by Generation

If you asked random people what demographic is most severely affected by drug addiction, you’d get some interesting answers. People’s responses say more about themselves than they do about the drug abuse epidemic. Some would look at drug use by gender and tell you there are more men than women addicted to drugs. Others would draw an economic line, stating that low income communities are most severely affected by addiction. Still others would separate age groups and pinpoint teenagers or college students as the most impacted by drug addiction.

call today learn more view our programs

The truth is that drug addiction is pervasive throughout the country, whether you group people by age, gender or income. The cliché statement that addiction is blind speaks the truth. Regardless of age, gender, religion, race, income, or any other delineating characteristic, you can become addicted to drugs – unless you don’t take them.

Teen Drug Abuse

teen drug addiction stat
Looking at drug use by age group, we can see where the trends begin. Teens tend to be the youngest group experiencing drug addiction, although isolated incidents of addiction have been reported in children as young as four. Common sense tells us that it takes some time for an addiction to take hold, and anyone younger would not have access to drugs. In fact, access is one of the determining factors for addiction in teens.

Alcohol and marijuana are traditionally the two drugs most accessible to teenagers. Teenage alcohol consumption reached a peak in the 1970s and then again in the late 1990s. At the height of teenage alcohol consumption in 1998, 31.5% of high school seniors reported binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row).

Marijuana use among teenagers steadily increased from 1989 to 2013 as domestic production increased 10 times over that period. 58% of teens surveyed admit marijuana is easy to get.

A few of the current statistics regarding teen drug abuse might surprise you:

  • Alcohol and drugs are the leading factors in teenage suicide.
  • There are approximately three million teenagers addicted to alcohol.
  • Kids who start drinking alcohol before they are 15 years old are five times more likely to become alcoholics.
  • 19.3% of students ages 12-17 who receive average grades of “D” or lower used marijuana.
  • The number of teens who perceive marijuana use as harmful declined from 2013 to 2014 while the rate of usage remains the same.

Generations of Teenagers

One of the differences between teens’ drugs of choice is that alcohol remains popular across generations while marijuana experiences decline periods. Most teenagers try alcohol at some point and about half of them become heavy users, according to Lee Robins, PhD. Although the legal drinking age has changed, alcohol remains accessible to teens. Despite decades of addiction statistics, there is still a perception that alcohol is not a dangerous drug.

Teenagers prior to 1960 were more likely to abuse alcohol than marijuana. While they were both accessible, public perceptions of drug use were more stringent. Alcohol was a socially acceptable drug, but anything else carried a negative stigma. As the 1960s progressed, attitudes relaxed, young people started experimenting with drugs, and marijuana use grew.

Teenagers in the 1960s did not progress much beyond alcohol and marijuana, but in the 2000s, prescription drugs became the third drug of choice for teenagers. While other drugs were trending in the intervening decades, issues of accessibility kept most of them from entering the teen drug scene.


College Drug Abuse

Drug use in college is as old as college itself. College has always had a reputation for experimentation and illicit drug use. College students have more access to a greater variety of drugs and more available capital to partake. Traditionally, college students are away from home and under their own controls for the first time, allowing greater opportunity for experimentation.

The following alcohol-related stats prove that college drug abuse is an over-grown teenage problem:

  • At least 80% of college students use alcohol.
  • 1,825 college students die annually from alcohol related injuries.
  • Each year 696,000 students are assaulted by a college student under the influence of alcohol.
  • One quarter of all college students experience poor academic performance as a result of alcohol use.
  • 19% of college students are addicted to alcohol.

In addition to continuing their alcohol and marijuana use from the teenage years, college students tend to widen their drug use repertoire. The college years seem to be a testing ground for new recreational drugs through the years. LSD was popularized on college campuses in the 1960s by psychologist and Harvard professor Timothy Leary, among others.

opioid usage stat

In 1990s, prescription drug abuse on college campuses increased dramatically. The use of Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Percocet saw a 343% increase between 1993 and 2005 while Ritalin use grew by 93%. Drug use by college students follows the same trends as the rest of the young adult population, only it’s more intense.

Inclusive Young Adult Demographic

Including college students, adults aged 18-25 present their own unique demographic for drug addiction. Their illicit drug use habits are a hybrid of easily accessible gateway drugs like marijuana and alcohol and more deadly drugs like cocaine and opiates. In 2010, 3,000 young adults died from prescription drug overdoses.

You don’t have to go to college to learn about illicit drugs. Young adults find easy access to all of the popular drugs for recreational use. From LSD to heroin, cocaine, and prescription medications, adults in their early 20s have always had a ready supply. Whether they turn to drugs to enhance academic performance, combat depression, or escape the doldrums of life, young people are even more likely than teenagers to develop drug addictions.

Surprising Adult Addiction

baby boomer drug addiction
When we look at drug use by age, the newest, and perhaps most surprising, demographic is adults over 50. Traditionally, alcohol was their primary drug of choice, due to its social acceptability and perceived harmless nature.

Among this group, alcohol abuse is tolerated and rarely reported or treated as an addiction. Many of us remember a grandparent recommending a shot of whisky to cure a cough or to take the chill out on a bitter winter day. Through the decades, adults over 50 typically did not join the recreational drug trends – until now.

Prescription drug abuse has crossed over into the adult demographic as Baby Boomers aged 50-59 show an increase in drug addiction in recent decades. Their access to prescription drugs is fueled partly by the blossoming of the pharmaceutical industry and other advances in medical science.

People over 50 tend to have more aches and pains. The pharmaceutical industry has exploded since the 1990s with new remedies for aching bodies. Your grandparent’s shot of whisky has been replaced by modern chemistry, which in some cases is even more dangerous and addicting.

The medical field has made recent advances in orthopedic devices, too. Baby Boomer senior citizens are seeing more routine surgeries for joint repair or replacement, among other things. These surgeries combined with strong pain relievers result in more drug addiction among adults over 50.

While previous generations lived with strict societal standards for alcohol and drug use, the Baby Boomers came of age in the 1960s and 1970s when rules were questioned. Some may have experimented with illicit drugs like LSD or heroin in their younger days. Even those with no history of drug use other than alcohol tend to be more accepting of chemicals as a way to alter their lives than their parents and grandparents were.

Drug Use by Generation


If your parents were drug users like many Baby Boomers, it’s somewhat more likely that you will get involved in substance abuse. In fact, genetics accounts for 40-60% of the predisposition to addiction. Of course, genetics is not the whole picture. Environment plays a role in creating addiction. Parents who abused drugs and exposed their children to illicit substances run the greatest risk of passing their addiction on to their kids.

As we mentioned with teenage drug abuse, access is an important variable. Without access to illicit substances and the means to obtain them, drug addiction is impossible. Even if you have passed along a genetic predisposition to addiction to your kids, adopting an attitude of intolerance for drugs and keeping them out of environments where drugs are available will greatly reduce their risk.

Generations of Drug Addiction by Substance

To fully understand the demographics of drug addiction, you have to look at the history of recreational drug development. The substances, while not to blame for addiction, shed some light on the drug epidemic.

drug popularity by decade

Free Love

The 1960s were the beginning of the American drug culture. Marijuana dates back to the 1600s as does abuse and addiction to various substances. But it was in the 1960s that a rebellion of spirit launched our modern drug epidemic.

LSD was the popular newcomer to the drug scene in the 1960s. Although it was created in 1938 by a Swiss pharmaceutical company trying to invent a blood stimulant, LSD’s hallucinogenic effects were discovered accidentally. Psychiatrists experimented with it in the 1940s and the US military tested it as a truth serum in the 1950s.

Recreational use of LSD began with medical professionals in the 1960s because the drug was not available on the market. Stories of psychedelic trips, easy access to the formula, and the fact that a dose was a very small amount, lead to black market production and wide-spread popular use. Banned in 1966, LSD use declined a few years later, picked up again in the 1990s and sharply declined after 2002.

Lesson from Vietnam

Even older than LSD, heroin was also produced by a pharmaceutical company. At a time when opiates were popular, especially among women, Bayer created heroin in 1898 as a cure for tuberculosis. Not thought to be addicting at the time, heroin was believed to be a treatment for morphine addiction, too.

A part of the American subculture in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, heroin reached a height of popularity with mainstream drug users in the 1970s. The rate of heroin abuse among US military personnel in Vietnam was estimated at 10-15%. This alarming fact caused the US government to crack down on heroin trafficking.

Heroin use increased again in the 1990s, but has dropped off since then. The mortality rate of heroin addicts in 1998 was estimated to be 20 times higher than the general population.

Cocaine Use is High Again

Made from the most potent natural stimulant on earth, cocaine was banned in 1922 because of a high death-rate associated with its use. It made a come-back in the 1970s, glamorized by the rich and famous as a non-addictive high to complement their fast lifestyle. Despite the high cost of maintaining a cocaine habit, since the drug is actually highly addicting, there were 10.8 million cocaine users in the US by 1982.

In 1985, crack came on the scene as a less expensive form of cocaine. Extremely addictive and affordable, crack increased addiction stats in low-income neighborhoods overnight. The high death rate among crack users help diminish the drug’s popularity, although crack addiction is still a problem.


Party Ecstasy

Developed by Merck as a potential diet pill in the early 1900s, Ecstasy began its life as MDMA. Though it didn’t work for weight loss, it was believed to lower inhibitions and used by psychiatrists to help patients bring out repressed thoughts in therapy sessions. The military also thought it had some value in chemical warfare and so experimented with it in the 1950s.

In the 1980s, under the brand name Ecstasy, this drug was popular on the party scene among teens and young adults. It was rumored to be safe, non-addictive, and give a euphoric high. Ecstasy was finally banned in the mid-1980s, after many reported deaths.

In 2007, 12.4 million Americans were estimated to have tried Ecstasy at least once, and the rate of teenage use was approaching 10%. The most chilling statistic, though, is that 92% of Ecstasy users go on to use other drugs including heroin and cocaine.

New Substance, New Generation, Same Problems

The commonalities in the development of these illicit drugs plays a role in drug use by generation statistics. Each of these substances was initially thought to be harmless or even healthful. They have each been around for over a century and appealed to drug users of different decades. When we look at drug addiction by generation, we can see these substances experiencing a resurgence.

The teenagers who took LSD in the 1960s were especially open to another type of hallucinogenic, Ecstasy, when it came along twenty years later. Heroin users from the 1970s saw their children experimenting with it in the 1990s. As the economy dipped in the late 1980s, cocaine use gave way to cheaper crack.

Drug addiction is indeed a pervasive problem in our society. As we follow the development of drugs through the generations, we can see addiction growing. There is not one demographic that owns the problem or has created a solution. Our attempts to develop drugs that are not harmful mostly result in more dangerous compounds. The only real solution to addiction is to avoid drugs.

Contact 12 Keys Rehab

If you or someone you know – regardless of his or her age or gender – is battling with addiction, seek help. At 12 Keys, we help people from all walks of life conquer addiction and learn to live a happy, healthy existence. Sober living is fun! Contact 12 Keys to learn about our how the 12 Keys Model can guide you toward your new, sober life.

call today learn more view our programs

The Addiction Blog