National drug survey shows big drop in methamphetamine use

— -- Marijuana is as popular as ever while methamphetamine is falling out of favor, a national drug-use survey has found.

Nearly one in 10 Americans report regularly using illegal drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants or prescription drugs used recreationally, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health made public today. The survey, sponsored by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), collects the data from interviews with 67,500 randomly selected people 12 years or older.

Marijuana, with about 17.4 million regular users, is by far the most commonly used drug. Its popularity is growing: 6.9% of the population reported using marijuana regularly, up from 5.8% in 2007, the survey found. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 7.4% reported having used marijuana in the past month, about the same as last year.

Drug use among young adults 18 to 25 has inched up steadily from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.5% in 2010, driven largely by an increase in marijuana use, the survey found. Marijuana use in that age group grew from 16.5% in 2008 to 18.5% in 2010.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, attributed the uptick in marijuana use to the increase in the number of states that have approved it for medical use. Delaware in May became the 16th state to approve medical marijuana.

"People keep calling it medicine, and that's the wrong message for young people to hear," Kerlikowske said.

Marijuana use rates rise and fall in medical marijuana states in the same fashion as they do in non-medical marijuana states, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for decriminalizing marijuana.

"In the field of medicine, whether or not a youth might abuse something doesn't determine whether or not an adult should have access to a medication and whether a doctor should prescribe it," Piper said.

Meanwhile, methamphetamine use, which raced across the USA for a decade, has declined sharply. The number of past-month users declined from 731,000 in 2006 to 353,000 in 2010.

Since methamphetamine emerged as a problem drug in 2001, states have outlawed or restricted the sale of ingredients used to concoct homemade meth, such as pseudoephedrine found in cold medicines such as Sudafed, said Peter Delany, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at SAMHSA.

"We've seen better attention for law enforcement and policy changes. You can't get all the Sudafed you want anymore," Delany said.

The percentage of the population who used prescription drugs, such as narcotic painkillers, for non-medical reasons stayed at 2.7%. The survey found that 55% of them got the drugs free from a friend or relative; 11.4% bought them from a friend or relative, and 5% stole them from a friend or relative. Just 4% purchased them from a drug dealer, the survey found.

Prescription-drug abuse has gotten widespread attention over the past two years from news media and public health authorities, Kerlikowske said. Police and lawmakers acted quickly to curb the problem, he said.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called it a public health epidemic, he said, law enforcement agencies cracked down on doctors who write thousands of prescriptions with little or no medical examination and states created programs to monitor the prescribing of narcotics.

"I think we're starting to see some positive results, but we're by no means out of the woods," Kerlikowske said.

On Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration clamped down on "bath salts," the nickname for a synthetic drug that some public health experts have identified as an emerging drug problem. The synthetic drugs, often sold at convenience stores under names such as "Cloud Nine" or "Ivory Wave," allegedly mimic the effects of cocaine or LSD and can cause hallucinations and paranoia. The American Association of Poison Control Centers has logged 4,137 reports of illness from those drugs as of July 31, up from 302 calls in 2010.

The DEA used its emergency powers to temporarily control the sale of three synthetic stimulants, Mephedrone, MDPV and Methylone, used to make the salts. The action makes possession and selling the chemicals illegal in the United States for at least a year while the DEA and the Department of Health and Human Services study them.