Federal Drug Control Spending

Examining the Impact on Youth Drug Use

Federal Drug Control Spending

Examining the Impact on Youth Drug Use

Table of Contents


About 70% of Americans view drug abuse and addiction as a major problem facing the country, according to the most recent survey on the subject by the Pew Research Center.1 How has that concern translated into federal drug control spending? With the nation still gripped by the opioid crisis, drug policy and prevention efforts remain a hotly debated political topic, and the need to keep young people from falling down the path toward substance use disorder is as great as ever.

But there’s far from a consensus on how the country should tackle these issues. Should more funds be directed toward treatment services or law enforcement? What is the proper balance between healthcare and criminal justice when it comes to lowering rates of drug abuse, particularly among young people?

A closer look at the hard facts on youth drug and alcohol abuse, as well as federal drug control spending, can help us better understand the areas in which taxpayer dollars can make the biggest impact. 

So, how has federal drug control spending changed over the years? And has that change impacted the rate at which young people try and abuse drugs and alcohol?

Federal Drug Control Spending Through the Years

The federal government spent nearly $36 billion in 2020’s fiscal year on drug control policy, which represented a slight decline from the previous year.2 But federal drug control spending has risen considerably since the mid-2000s, though funding hasn’t exactly stayed steady.

Adjusted for inflation, federal drug control spending in 2008 was about $15 billion in today’s dollars, or less than half what’s spent these days..3 Alongside an increase in spending, the U.S. has also shifted the priorities of how those dollars are spent.

For example, in 2008 the largest chunk of the pie went to law enforcement. In 2018, treatment accounted for the lion’s share of federal drug control funding, though domestic law enforcement was close behind.4 The biggest funding shifts have been away from prevention and international efforts at reducing drug abuse in the U.S.

Federal Drug Control Spending by Area, Fiscal Years

Area20082018% Change
Domestic law enforcement28.20%36.30%29%

Drug & Alcohol Use by America’s Youth

The prevalence of alcohol and drug use among young people, including middle school, high school, and college students has changed considerably over the past decade, and the changes are largely positive. But while some age groups have seen use of illegal or harmful substances decline, others have seen certain substances become much more commonly used, and no age group has seen a drop across the board.

How Common is Drug Use by Young People?

Before we can explore how drug and alcohol use by youths has changed, let’s first get a handle on how common substance use is today among 8th-graders, 10th-graders, and college students. For the most part, college students are much more likely to use substances like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and others than their middle school or high school counterparts.

According to the National Institutes of Health research, alcohol was the most commonly used substance among middle, high, and college-aged students, while cocaine was the least commonly used when looking at the past-month.5,6

Notably, though, nearly one in four high school seniors has used an illicit drug in the past month, and more than 8% of 8th-graders, who typically are 13-14 years of age, have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.

Past Month Substance Use by Age Group

Substance8th-Graders12th-GradersCollege StudentsAverage
Illicit drugs*7.30%24.00%26.70%19.33%
* Includes marijuana and other drugs that are illegal everywhere

Alcohol Remains the Most Used Substance

When looking at lifetime use of substances, alcohol remains the most abused substance, and usage rates climb considerably as a child gets older. Almost eight in 10 college students have tried alcohol, which is not legal until the age of 21, and almost half of high school seniors have used an illicit drug at least once.

Lifetime Substance Use by Age Group

Substance8th-Graders12th-GradersCollege StudentsAverage
Alcohol lifetime23.50%58.50%77.50%53.17%
Illicit drugs lifetime18.70%47.80%55.10%40.53%
Marijuana lifetime13.90%43.60%52.00%36.50%
Cigarettes lifetime9.10%23.80%Unavail.16.45%
Cocaine lifetime1.40%3.90%7.60%4.30%
* Includes marijuana and other drugs that are illegal everywhere

Performance Enhancing Drugs

An average of about 2.6% of young people have misused the medication Adderall in the past year, with almost 5% of high school seniors saying they’ve misused the drug. 

2.6% of Young People That Misused Adderall in the Past Year
5% of High School Seniors That Misused the Drug in the Past Year

Among both middle school and high school-age students, Adderall abuse is more common than cocaine abuse. Steroid use has similar rates among 8th-graders and 10th-graders, though data on the frequency of steroid use is less available than for other drugs.

Past Year Use/Misuse by Age Group

Substance8th-Graders8th-GradersCollege Students

How Has Youth Drug Use Changed?

As mentioned, on average, the three age groups have seen the usage of most substances drop since 2008, though there are some notable exceptions, and rates of change are far from consistent. For example, when looking at all frequencies, the biggest decline was noted daily drinking by middle schoolers (-85.7%), while the biggest increase was in past-month cocaine use by college students (+91.7%).

Two substances, cigarettes, and alcohol saw across-the-board declines in past-month usage across all three age groups, while 8th-graders saw past-month usage of all five types of substances fall.

Percentage Change in Past-Month Substance Use by Age Group, 2008-2018

Substance8th-Graders12th-GradersCollege StudentsAverage
Cocaine past-75.00%-42.10%+91.70%-8.47%
Illicit drugs-3.90%+7.60%+41.30%+15.00%
* Includes marijuana and other drugs that are illegal everywhere

Cigarettes Had the Biggest Drop in Use

When looking at lifetime usage statistics, cigarettes still saw the biggest drops, though data for college students was not available. It’s important to note, though, that this figure may undergo rapid change in the future, as the federal age for purchasing cigarettes was recently raised to 21, meaning many college students will finish their degrees without being able to legally purchase cigarettes.

While the youngest age group once again saw drops in all five types of substances, college students only reduced their use of one (alcohol), though lifetime cigarette use for the age group was not reported.

Percentage Change in Lifetime Substance Use by Age Group, 2008-2018

Substance8th-Graders12th-GradersCollege StudentsAverage
Illicit drugs-4.60%0.80%11.30%2.50%
* Includes marijuana and other drugs that are illegal everywhere

Use of Performance Enhancing Drugs Rose

For both middle schoolers and high schoolers, past-year misuse of both steroids and Adderall rose, while Adderall use by college students declined considerably. It’s important to note that the 2008 survey asked participants about Ritalin, which is a similar but distinct drug from Adderall, though both are used to treat attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder, so they are used interchangeably in our analysis. Past-year use of Adderall by high school seniors rose by more than one-third between 2008 and 2018.

Past Year Use/Misuse by Age Group

Substance8th-Graders12th-GradersCollege Students

Overdose Deaths & Substance Abuse Treatment

Though the statistics show that youth alcohol and substance use is largely trending downward, particularly among adolescents, the tragic fact remains that thousands of young people were killed by drug overdoses or alcohol-related incidents in 2018, and most who needed treatment didn’t receive it.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 6.1 million Americans between the ages of 12 and 25, a similar cohort to our middle school, high school, and college-age group, needed substance abuse treatment in 2018.7 But only about 2.2% of all people in the age group received any treatment for substance use disorder, though those of college-age were most likely to receive treatment.

About 4,300 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died from drug overdoses or acute alcohol poisoning in 2018, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of these deaths has increased since 2008, and the rate has climbed by more than 30%. Most of these deaths were caused by drug overdoses, which reflects the enormity of the opioid crisis.

The CDC reports that 128 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day, though the opioid wave may have crested.8 Between 2017 and 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. fell by 4% after nearly two decades of rapid increases.

Impact of Federal Drug Policy & Spending

The question we posed at the outset was about whether increased and shifted federal drug control funding had lowered rates of youth drug and alcohol use. Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it’s worth noting a few things:

Federal spending on drug control efforts was nearly $26 billion in 2018 and adjusted for inflation, that's an increase of almost 73% since 2008.

Federal Spending on Drug Control Increased 73% since 2008

For 2021, the federal drug control budget proposal by the White House would have the government spending more than $35 billion, slightly higher than what was spent in 2020.

In addition to an increase in the overall budget, the share of funding for treatment rose by 46%, and in 2018 treatment spending was the biggest share of the pie.

Funding for Treatment Rose by 46% since 2008

The share of spending on drug use prevention declined by 52%.

Spending on Drug Use Prevention declined 52%

Nearly one in three high school seniors uses alcohol regularly, based on past-month usage figures, and more than 8% of eighth-graders, who are usually no more than 14 years of age, said they'd used alcohol in the past month.

8th-graders have seen the use of most illegal substances fall over the past decade, but the use of steroids and misuse of Adderall and Ritalin have climbed in 8th-graders and 12th-graders.

Most illegal drug use by college students has gone up, but that age group is using tobacco and alcohol less.

Other Possible Factors for Reduced Drug Use in America's Youth

It’s impossible to know for sure the degree to which federal drug control spending is tied to the positive changes the country has seen regarding youth drug and alcohol use. Other factors may be at play as well, including:

Reduced Parental Smoking

Smoking has dropped dramatically over the past few decades across the country, and this could have a carry-over effect on younger people. Most people who become habitual cigarette smokers take up the habit as children, and if fewer adults are smoking, that means less chance for tweens and teens to raid their parents’ stash. According to an American Lung Association analysis, more than 42% of American adults smoked in 1965; in 2018 that rate was just 13.7%.9

Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana is legal for adults in many states, and young people may be experimenting more with marijuana, even though it’s still illegal under a certain age in all states and less with other drugs. Both college students and high school seniors saw lifetime and past-month use of marijuana rise between 2008 and 2018, and the declines among the eighth-grade age group were the lowest when it comes to weed. Consider that while 8th-graders saw daily alcohol use fall by 85.7%, they saw past-month marijuana use fall by only 3.4%.

Recommendations for Future Drug Control Spending

The biggest swings in the federal drug control budget were away from prevention and international efforts and toward treatment. While there are some indications that spending less internationally and more on treatment have made a difference in youth drug use, putting more money into prevention may help close some of the gaps that exist with young people.
That’s because adolescence is the time at which the human brain is most likely to seed the makings of an addiction or substance use disorder. Studies have shown that those who start drinking around age 11 or 12 have a greater chance of struggling with alcohol use disorder.  That’s nearly double that of those who don’t start drinking until they’re 21.10

Preventing young people from heading down that path is an important aspect to continuing and expanding the optimistic trends that we’ve seen in youth drug and alcohol use over the past decade.

We here at Arrow Passage Recovery support prevention efforts. But, we are here to help if the youth in your life struggling with addiction.

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