Vast Majority Quit Illegal Drug Use On Their Own Within First Year, Study Finds

By John Lavitt 08/24/16

The data also revealed "that traumatic childhood experience, mental illness and economic insecurity are more significant predictors of substance abuse than availability of the drugs."

Vast Majority Quit Illegal Drug Use On Their Own Within First Year, Study Finds

The Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University compiled extensive data and organized them in a collection of user-friendly tables, providing both treatment professionals and the public an in-depth look at drug use in the United States. The Brian C. Bennett Drug Charts deliver statistics mined from over 40 years of government survey data, and present an accessible look at the evolution and nature of drug use in the United States.

Researcher Brian Bennett is credited with being the first to compile the data in easy-to-understand charts. Since his original efforts, the Baker Institute's Drug Policy Program has continued to update the charts. The goal is to provide a reliable resource that traces usage patterns of individual drugs over an extended period of time. In addition to usage, the charts also highlight the abuse and dangers of the substances.

From alcohol and marijuana to cocaine and methamphetamine, the charts downplay the drama by presenting the stark facts of drug use nationwide over a substantial time period. William Martin, director of the Drug Policy Program and Katharine Neill, a drug policy expert at the Baker Institute, believe the data reveals how the nation’s enforcement policies do not accurately reflect the reality of the problem at hand.

The charts also demonstrate that usage is not defined by the availability of drugs. Rather—backing up the findings of Dr. Gabor Maté and other modern addiction specialists—traumatic childhood experience, mental illness and economic insecurity are more significant predictors of substance abuse.

The research demonstrated that while some drug use results in significant physical and criminal cost, other drugs are less dangerous. For example, harsh penalties for psychoactive drugs like LSD and mushrooms are not backed up by the actual potential for the abuse of these drugs. As Martin and Neill explain in their brief, Drugs by the Numbers: The Brian C. Bennett Drug Charts

"The Bennett charts graphically illustrate the natural course of the use of psychoactive drugs. Most people who ever use such drugs stop using them shortly after initiation or a period of (usually brief) experimentation… This calls into question policies that levy harsh penalties and apply indelible criminal records to people for what may be experimental or incidental use likely to stop on its own in the normal course of maturation. More rational and compassionate responses exist and deserve close attention."

As a starting point, the charts reveal the percentage of people 12 and older who have ever used a given drug in their lifetime, in the past year, and in the last month. The findings reveal that most people who have ever used drugs illegally stop using on their own within the first year. After this initial period of experimentation, many people do not continue regularly using illegal drugs, or even ever again. 

Such a trend questions the extremity of enforcement actions taken in the name of the War on Drugs. Since the rates of illegal drug use, according to this data, have been consistent over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs is shown to be nothing more than a sham. Beyond filling jails and prisons, the drug war has had almost no effect on drug usage nationwide.

Moreover, despite nationwide concerns over the "opioid epidemic" (also called into question by the charts), alcohol leads to greater personal and societal damage than any other drug by far. In fact, a surprising statistic that is consistent over the entire study period is that illegal drugs comprise less than 20% of substance use disorders nationwide.

Finally, the belief that marijuana is a "gateway drug" is confirmed to be nothing more than a myth. Not only is marijuana not a gateway drug to harder substances, it seems to not even be a gateway to more marijuana use. Although half of respondents under 60 smoked pot at least once, fewer than 10% became regular users. 

For a more in-depth examination of these charts and the data they represent, especially in terms of opiate use, please read today's feature, Opioid Epidemic Greatly Exaggerated?

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.