The Government’s Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings and Detailed Tables, finds that 8.9 percent of full-time employees and 12.5 percent of part-time employees, 18 years of age and older, are current illicit drug users, while 18.1 percent of unemployed adults in that age group are current illicit drug users. The Survey, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and is based on screening at nearly 154,000 addresses and interviews with more than 63,000 individuals, contains an ominous reminder for employers: “…most illicit drug users are employed. Of the 21.5 million current illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2012, 14.6 million (67.9 percent) were employed either full or part-time.”

Among other data contained in the 2012 Report of interest to employers are the following:

  • Among adults aged 50 to 64, current illicit drug use rates increased in the past decade. For the 50 to 54 year-old age group, the rate jumped from 3.4 percent to 7.2 percent; for the 55 to 59 year-old age group, the rate spiked from 1.9 percent to 6.6 percent; and for the 60-64 year-old age group, the rate went from 1.1 percent (in 2003) to 3.3 percent.
  • Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug. There were 18.9 million past month users in 2012. In the preceding 5 years, the rate of current use increased from 5.8 to 7.3 percent, and the number of users rose from 14.5 million. Daily or near daily use of marijuana increased from 5.1 million persons in 2007 to 7.6 million in 2012. 2.4 million were first-time users in the past year.
  • The number of past year heroin users increased significantly from 2007 (373 thousand) to 2012 (669 thousand).
  • The number of current cocaine users appears to have remained about the same in recent years (1.6 million age 12 and over in 2012, or 0.6 percent of the population) but are less than a decade ago.
  • The number of past month methamphetamine users decreased from 731 thousand in 2006 to 440 thousand in 2012.
  • In 2012, 1.9 million persons were past year first-time non-medical users of pain relievers.
  • In 2012, an estimated 22.2 million persons aged 12 or older were classified as dependent or abusing. Of these 2.8 million were dependent on or abusing both illicit drugs and alcohol, 4.5 million had such issues only with illicit drugs, and 14.9 million had such issues only with alcohol.
  • The number of persons with heroin dependence or abuse in 2012 (467 thousand) was approximately twice the number in 2002.
  • In 2012, of the 23.1 million persons 12 and older needing treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol problem, 20.6 million had not received treatment at a specialty facility in the past year. Of the 1.1 million persons who said they felt they needed treatment for their drug or alcohol problem, only 347 thousand reported they made an effort to get treatment. The primary reason for not seeking treatment was a lack of insurance coverage and inability to pay the cost.

The Survey suggests the need for continued vigilance against workplace substance abuse. An overwhelming percentage of drug abusers are employed. The only sure way of detecting abuse and addressing it is by drug and alcohol testing using a lawful, common-sense policy. While the popularity of certain illicit drugs may ebb and flow, drug and alcohol abuse continue to pose hazards to workplace safety and impede efficient operations.

One may wonder whether the prevalence of marijuana abuse in the study may be related to its legalization in a growing number of states—mostly for medical purposes but in two states, more generally—and the apparent ambivalence of the federal government over enforcement of the federal controlled substances law. Any stigma seems to have diminished as its acceptability (and perhaps availability) has increased. Heroin, a traditional drug of abuse, may have increased in popularity because of crackdowns on the misuse of prescription drugs.

Certain assumptions also may have to be questioned. In particular, the conventional wisdom that employees “age out” of drug abuse appears to be on uncertain footing based on this study. We see, too, that substance abuse rehabilitation is spotty at best. For many, only the threat of loss of employment may propel them to enter a program that offers the chance to end a pattern of abuse and dependence.