Most Americans regard illegal drugs as one of the nation's most serious problems, but two generations after the "war on drugs" began, disagreement remains on what should be done.
For most people, this is an intensely personal problem as well as a government concern. More than half of the public worry that a family member might become addicted, and an overwhelming majority say the government isn't doing enough to address the problem.
Overall illicit use of drugs – defined as the use of illegal drugs and non-medical use of prescription drugs and other substances – has declined from its peak thirty years ago. Partly because survey participants might not be honest, drug abuse is hard to measure. Federal researchers have also updated their methods of conducting surveys on the subject. As a result, some recent and older polls can't be statistically compared, but their findings do provide at least a glimpse into changing behavior.
In 1979, 14.1 percent of individuals age 12 and older participating in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) reported illicit drug use in the month before the question was asked. In 2008, 8 percent of individuals age 12 and older said the same, in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That represents about 20 million people, and the rate has stayed stable since 2002. This apparent trend is underscored by statistics on teen drug abuse, from the University of Michigan's annual nationwide "Monitoring the Future" survey.
Researchers there link peaks and valleys in drug use to changing perceptions of the degree of health or other risks in using or even experimenting with various substances. These perceptions are in turn influenced by factors including parental attitudes, celebrity behavior, the experiences of other teens, high-profile drug-related deaths, cultural trends, and anti-drug advertising campaigns.