U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration

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Illicit Drug Use

Illicit drug use is associated with serious health and social consequences, such as impaired cognitive functioning, kidney and liver damage, drug addiction, and decreased worker productivity.1 Illicit drugs include marijuana/hashish, cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogens, crack, and prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs used for non-medical purposes. In 2008, nearly 13.4 million women aged 18 years and older reported using an illicit drug within the past year, representing 11.5 percent of adult women. In comparison, 17.4 million men, representing 16.1 percent of the adult male population, used at least one illicit drug in the past year (data not shown). Past-year illicit drug use was highest among females aged 18–25 years (29.9 percent), followed by females aged 12–17 years(18.9 percent); past-year use was lowest among women aged 26 years and older (8.5 percent).

Use of all drug types, except inhalants, was highest among females aged 18–25 years, with 23.7 percent reporting past-year marijuana use and 13.7 percent reporting non-medical use of prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs. Use of inhalants in the past year was highest among females aged 12–17 (4.2 percent), compared to 1.1 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 0.1 percent of those aged 26 years and older.

Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug among females of all ages, followed by the non-medical use of psychotherapeutics. Short-term effects of marijuana use can include difficulty thinking and solving problems, memory and learning problems, and distorted perception. Long-term use of psychotherapeutic drugs can lead to physical dependence and addiction. In addition, when taken in large doses, stimulant use can lead to compulsivity, paranoia, dangerously high body temperature, and an irregular heartbeat. Prescription drugs commonly used or abused for non-medical purposes include opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants.1

The percentage of women reporting nonmedical use of psychotherapeutics varies by race and ethnicity. Among women aged 18 and older, non-Hispanic White women were more likely than women of other races and ethnicities to report the use of psychotherapeutics in the past year (6.3 percent). Four percent of non-Hispanic Black women also reported the non-medical use of psychotherapeutics, as did 3.5 percent of non-Hispanic American Indian/ Alaska Native and Hispanic women (data not shown).

1 National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs of Abuse Information: Drugs of Abuse/Related Topics [online] Aug 2009. http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugpages.html, accessed 11/30/09.

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