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First-Time Drug Users Favor Marijuana

Drug of abuse is a term that doctors, researchers, public health officials and law enforcement officials use to describe a wide range of legal and illegal substances that can produce diagnosable symptoms of substance abuse or substance addiction in repeated users. As part of a yearly project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks the substances that first-time drug users are most likely to try. Information from this survey is also used to track the average age of users who initiate their drug intake with specific types of substances.

The Basics

Legally available substances that come under the heading of drugs of abuse include prescription opioid painkillers, prescription amphetamines and methamphetamines, prescription sedative-hypnotics and tranquilizers, nicotine/tobacco products and anabolic steroids. Although alcohol is commonly listed separately from medications and nicotine, the National Institute on Drug Abuse also considers this substance a legal drug of abuse. Another group of generally legal substances, called inhalants, includes a large number of commercial products adapted for drug use. Illegal substances classified as drugs of abuse include heroin and a number of other opioid drugs, most forms of methamphetamine, powdered and “crack” cocaine, MDMA (molly, ecstasy), hallucinogens such as LSD and PCP, synthetic marijuana, “bath salts” (known technically as synthetic cathinones) and “club drugs” (GHB, Rohypnol). Despite its partial decriminalization and legalization, marijuana remains illegal on a federal level.

Which Drugs Are Used First?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released the findings from the latest fully analyzed version of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in late 2013. These findings show that just under 3 million Americans age 12 or older took an improperly used or illegal drug in 2012 (SAMHSA does not include nicotine or alcohol use in this calculation). Split evenly over the year, this amounts to 7,900 individuals on any given day. Almost two-thirds (65.6 percent) of the reported new drug users took marijuana in one form or another; altogether, slightly less than 2.4 million people started using this drug.

The next most popular targets for first-time drug use in 2012 were opioid painkillers; almost 1.9 million teenagers and adults started abusing these prescription medications. In descending order, the other substances most likely to function as first targets for drug use were prescription tranquilizers (over 1.4 million users), MDMA (869,000 users), stimulants other than cocaine (676,000 users), cocaine (639,000 users), inhalants (584,000 users), LSD (424,000 users), prescription sedative-hypnotics (166,000 users), heroin (156,000 users) and PCP (90,000 users).

Age at Drug Initiation

Results from the latest completed National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that the average age at first drug use in 2012 varied considerably with the substance in question. The oldest average age (26.2 years old) occurred among those individuals who initiated drug use by abusing prescription sedative-hypnotics. In descending order, the drugs with the next highest average ages at first use were prescription tranquilizers (23.6 years old), heroin (23.0 years old), opioid painkillers (22.3 years old), stimulants other than cocaine (22.1 years old), MDMA (20.3 years old), cocaine (20.0 years old), LSD (19.0 years old) and marijuana (17.9 years old). The youngest average age (16.9 years old) occurred among those individuals who initiated drug use with PCP.


The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also includes year-to-year comparisons for the initiation of drug use in all Americans age 12 or older. In 2012, the number of people who initiated drug use with marijuana fell slightly compared to 2011. Except for some fairly minor variations, the number of people who initiated drug use with most other substances (including prescription medications, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and hallucinogens) remained stable from 2011 to 2012. The number of people initiating drug use with inhalants fell substantially between the two years.

The results from 2012 did not include synthetic marijuana products, a group of substances just now fully coming onto the radars of doctors, researchers and public health officials. While many first-time drug users take on a single substance during their initial experiences, some take two or more substances. This means that the figures compiled through the National Survey on Drug Use and Health inevitably overlap to a certain degree. The researchers who conduct the survey do their best to minimize the impact this overlap has on the accuracy of the overall findings.

Posted on March 17th, 2014
Posted in Abused Drugs

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