The History and Statistics of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Today, more than 10% of the adult U.S. population is addicted to drugs. Alcohol is responsible for more than 29% of all fatal traffic accidents. Drugs and alcohol cost the U.S. more than 600 billion dollars a year and they destroy lives. Studies show that excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for 2.5 million years of potential life lost annually. Addiction also puts a strain on healthcare facilities. Almost half of all U.S. hospital beds are used to treat health conditions directly related to alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, most people who become addicted to either drugs or alcohol first use the substance as teenagers. Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of death of American teenagers.

Almost anyone can become addicted. A combination of genetic and environmental factors can trigger the disease in at-risk individuals. With the rise in population, drug addiction and abuse have also risen along with it. While the early part of the nation’s history saw people addicted to mostly plant and alcohol-based substances, the nature of addiction is the same in the 21st century. But the types of substances people are most addicted to are different. Below, we’ll cover the history of drug abuse in the U.S., what causes addiction, and who is statistically most likely to be affected by the disease. We’ll also cover the most commonly abused substances in the U.S. today.

When was drug and alcohol addiction first recorded?

Ancient people used plant-based drugs and alcohol for medicinal, religious, and recreational purposes. The first ever recorded winery appeared in Armenia sometime around 7,000 BC. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were fond of wine and even dedicated several religious festivals and gods to alcohol consumption and celebration. These ancient civilizations also consulted ‘oracles’ for political and military decisions. The oracles induced prophetic visions with drugs like mushrooms and cannabis.

In 3,400 BC, the Sumerians discovered the opium plant and first derived medicinal benefits from it. Opium was usually ingested, but ancient people soon learned that the effects of the drug were more significant when it was smoked. Opium became a source of conflict and wars between Great Britain and China in the 19th century. Also in the 19th century, morphine and cocaine were first invented and sold as medicines and anesthetics.

In the U.S., Chinese immigrants in the 19th century brought the poppy plant with them. Opium dens became popular and many people began to struggle with addiction. Since then, opium has evolved into street heroin and morphine and derivative analgesics. Today, opioid addiction in the U.S. has reached epidemic levels and the government has recently declared a state of emergency.

During the early part of the nation’s history, addiction was seen as a moral failing. People struggling with addiction were left to die in the street or were thrown into prison. It wasn’t until the late 20th century when brain imaging scans showed the effects of drugs on the brain that addiction began to be seen as a disease. And since it is a disease, it can be treated and controlled with proven therapeutic means.  

What causes addiction?

Addiction happens in the brain. When someone first takes a substance, powerful neurotransmitters are released in abundance. A euphoric feeling or ‘high’ overcomes the user. It is this high that is the first hook. The user will take more of the substance to keep inducing this euphoric high. The brain, however, likes to maintain a balance of neurochemicals.

When these neurochemicals are artificially inflated, the brain will dial back its natural release of neurochemicals. When the high wears off, a crash happens. Withdrawal symptoms start. The user will retake the drug, but tolerance has developed. Tolerance occurs when the brain and body become used to the drug’s effects, and so, a high doesn’t happen at the same levels of drug use. The user will chase the high by taking more amounts of the drug than ever. That’s addiction.

Tolerance can happen after just one use. Some of the most addictive drugs are heroin and methamphetamine. Because no one truly knows their genetic propensity for addiction, anytime someone tries a drug for the first time, they are playing Russian roulette.

Sometimes withdrawal symptoms are incredibly painful and potentially dangerous. Once someone is addicted, they need help and medical supervision, so they don’t get sick, injured, or die during withdrawals. Furthermore, highs, tolerance, and addiction rewire the brain’s risk-reward neural pathways. Once someone becomes addicted, they will always struggle with wanting to chase that high. It’s imperative that people in recovery from addiction have a support group and maintenance plans in place to avoid relapsing.

Who is most likely to struggle with addiction?

Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can have the genetic propensity to become addicted regardless of their class, race, or gender. But people with untreated mental health conditions are the most at-risk of struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. People who are poor are also at higher risk of becoming addicted. People who struggle with poverty don’t have as many resources at their disposal to adequately treat their addiction. Addiction is a disease and studies show that the poor have less access to preventative healthcare and ongoing healthcare maintenance.

People who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction usually first become addicted as teens. Half of all drug addicts started with marijuana, and drug and alcohol abuse rates are highest for people in their late teens and early twenties.

Men are more likely to struggle with alcohol addiction. 17% of all men and 8% of women will develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. While men are more likely to become addicted to any drug or alcohol, women have a harder time maintaining sobriety and are more likely to experience a relapse than a man with the same addiction. Women are also more likely than men to struggle with prescription opioid dependence, but men are more likely to abuse street heroin.

What are the most common addictive substances in the U.S. and who is most likely to abuse them?

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S. Its use is widespread, and it’s far too easy for at-risk individuals to obtain. Alcohol is also the leading cause of death in teens and young adults, and thousands of people every year are injured or killed as a result of drunk driving. Currently, there are an estimated 17.7 million people addicted to alcohol in the U.S. Men are more likely to struggle with alcohol addiction than women. But women who’ve been abused as children have a higher risk profile for adulthood alcohol addiction.

Cannabis is the second most abused drug in the U.S. 4.3 million people struggle with marijuana dependence, and the reason why it is so prevalent is that it is a cheaper alternative to more expensive drug habits. Teens and people in their early twenties are the most likely to abuse marijuana and develop a dependence. A person who begins using cannabis before age 18 is more likely to develop a dependence on the drug.

Studies indicate that heavy, early marijuana use can induce schizophrenia in at-risk individuals. An untreated mental health condition like this can lead someone to try harder drugs as a form of self-medication. Half of all people who enter rehab will also present with a mental health condition.

While the withdrawal effects of marijuana are not severe or life-threatening, they can be unpleasant enough that a person struggling with dependence is likely to relapse.

2.06 million people in the U.S. are addicted to prescription pain relievers. Opioid derivatives and fentanyl patches are some of the most addictive analgesics available. Fentanyl patches have a potency rate 100% higher than morphine.

People who abuse prescription painkillers can quickly exhaust their legal supplies of the drug. They’re at-risk of turning to street heroin to avoid withdrawals.

People between the ages of 18 – 25 are the most likely to abuse prescription painkillers. Young, upper-middle-class white women abuse these drugs in higher numbers than any other age or demographic group. If someone has a history of untreated anxiety, depression, or PTSD, their risk of addiction to painkillers is greater.

How is addiction treated?

Addiction is a complex disease, and each case differs per individual. It’s crucial that someone with addiction gets tailored, customized, and holistic treatment to prevent relapse. Treatment methods include medically-supervised detox, replacement drug therapies, and psychological treatment. Studies show that untreated mental health problems significantly increase the risk of someone becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol.

People in recovery can maintain lifelong sobriety with ongoing maintenance plans that include group and individual therapies. With support and adequate holistic treatment, anyone can go on to live a life free from drug abuse and addiction. If you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified counselor today and get the treatment you need.