More Than Two-Thirds of U.S. Residents Who First Started Using Drugs in the Past Year Began with Marijuana

While the data on whether pot is a gateway drug is really mixed, it certainly does appear that marijuana is one of the first drugs that young people encounter. While marijuana may not be as dangerous as other drugs of abuse it is widely thought that individuals who use marijuana are at risk for abusing other drugs as well.

Recently published results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health have shown that an estimated 3.1 million persons ages 12 or older—an average of approximately 8,400 per day—used a drug other than alcohol for the first time in the past year, according to data from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. More than two-thirds (68%) of these new users reported that marijuana was the first drug they tried. Slightly more than one-fifth (22%) reported that prescription drugs used nonmedically were the first drug they tried, including 14% with pain relievers, 4% with tranquilizers, 3% with stimulants, and 1% with sedatives. Less than 10% reported that their first use of drugs involved inhalants and hallucinogens, and very few initiates started using with cocaine or heroin. These findings suggest that drug use prevention efforts might focus on marijuana and the nonmedical use of prescription drugs, as these are the drugs that are most often used first.

It is interesting to note that 22% Started with Nonmedical Use of Prescription Drugs. Nonmedical use of prescription drugs is defined as use of pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and/or sedatives without a prescription belonging to the respondent or use that occurred simply for the experience or feeling the drug caused. It does not include use of over-the-counter drugs.

For more information on help or treatment for substance abuse or addiction in Philadelphia or the surrounding suburbs contact a local drug and alcohol treatment center or addiction psychologist.

SOURCE: Adapted by CESAR from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, 2012. Available online at