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Most Popular Drugs in U.S. During the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s

Drugs are a popular topic in today’s media. From the war on drugs, the widespread legalization of marijuana, or the opioid crisis, it’s hard to miss a conversation that revolves around drugs.  This isn’t news, though. Drugs have been around for a long time. In fact, drug use has been ingrained in societies for thousands of years.

Here at, it’s important for us to look at historic trends to see how drug use has affected people since drug use began. But, since that kind of historical data doesn’t exist, we decided to scale down our research and look at a smaller timeline – the past few decades. We went through the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 1979 through 2017* from SAMHSA and compiled the data to figure out what the most popular drug is by decade. Take a look at what we found below:

Most Common Drug Used in 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s

The most common drug used by decade, based on the percentage of people who have used the substance in the past year

According to SAMHSA reports, the most popular drug by decade (excluding alcohol and marijuana) changed over time. The percentages refer to the number of people who have reportedly used the drug within the last 12 months at the time of the survey response. Cocaine had the highest usage rate by a fair margin in the ’80s. Drug use rates dropped overall in the ’90s, but analgesics/pain relievers were the most commonly used substance for that decade. Pain relievers remained the most popular drug for the next 2 decades, with usage rates rising substantially over the next 20 years.

Included in the research are analgesics/pain relievers, cocaine, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, and tranquilizers. According to the graphic above, analgesics/pain relievers took the lead as the most used drug for the past three decades, while cocaine was the most used at 6.25% from 1979 to 1988.

Average Alcohol and Marijuana Usage Rates

average alcohol and marijuana usage rates by decade, based on the percentage of people who have used the substance in the past year

In every decade, alcohol and marijuana had the highest average usage rates since the late ‘70s. From 1979 to 1988, the average usage rate of alcohol was 63.54%. In the ‘90s, the average usage rate was 54.53%, and in the 2000s, the rate was 59.85%. From 2010 to 2017, the usage rate was 59.31%. The cumulative decade-by-decade change for alcohol went down by 7%, meaning that average usage dropped 7% between the ’80s and the 2010s.

Marijuana use also declined cumulatively from 1979 to 2017. From 1979 to 1988, the average usage rate was 18.37%, but from 1990-1999 the usage rate dropped significantly to 10.17%. However, since 1990, there has been an increase over the following two decades. From 2010 to 2017, the average usage rate rose back to 17.81%. Despite this, there are still 3% fewer people using marijuana from 1979-2017.

Change in Average Drug and Alcohol Usage By Decade

change in average usage by decade, based on the percentage of people who have used the substance in the past year

The final piece of information we wanted to highlight is the change in usage over each decade. From the 1980s to the 1990s, every drug showed a decrease in usage, with some having a decline of almost 10%. By the 2000s, usage of most drugs (excluding sedatives) increased. From 2000 to 2010, there were increases and decreases, with the majority of drugs showing decreased usage. Tranquilizers were the only drug where usage did not increase or decrease.

Some drugs showed a substantial decrease in cumulative change. Average usage rates for sedatives dropped by over 500% and cocaine usage rates dropped by almost 200%, meaning people were over five times less likely to have used sedatives over the past year, and almost two times less likely to use cocaine. Heroin, hallucinogens, and analgesics/pain relievers are the only drugs that have had a cumulative increase in use.

We can see that analgesics/pain relievers have been the most used drug over the past three decades. This can be closely linked to the opioid crisis, which has become extremely prevalent since the increase in opioid prescriptions in the 1990s. Most drugs have had a decrease in usage cumulatively, while heroin, hallucinogens, and analgesics/pain relievers have increased. Alcohol and marijuana use has been decreasing, however, the change has not been substantial. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use disorder, our team has the resources to help.

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Getting Help for Drug Addiction

Professional drug addiction treatment programs aim to help individuals safely stop substance abuse as well as build a strong foundation for lasting recovery. Some common techniques used in these recovery programs include:

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