The Relationship between Age of First Drug Use and Future Treatment Needs

Early alcohol and drug prevention efforts and enhanced treatment options for youth may play a key role in reducing the likelihood of future substance abuse according to a new brief from SAMHSA. The report, Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18-to-30, presents data that suggest the age of first drug use is associated with need for treatment later in life; specifically, persons reporting an earlier age of initiation were 1) more likely to be admitted to treatment and 2) abuse multiple substances. In 2011, nearly three-quarters of the 18-to-30 year olds admitted for substance abuse treatment began using when under the age of 17, 34 percent between the ages of 15-17, 30 percent between the ages of 12-14, and 10 percent at age 11 and under. Of those who began using substances at age 11 or younger, 78 percent reported abusing at least two substances at the time of intake.

Other interesting takeaways from the report:

  • 63 percent of treatment admissions of people 18 to 30 years old were male, and males were more likely than females to start using substances at earlier ages
  • Among those reporting first drug use at 11 or younger, marijuana and alcohol were the most commonly used substances
  • Among those reporting first drug use at age 25 or over, heroin and prescription pain medication were the most commonly used substances
  • Nearly 39 percent of the persons admitted to treatment whom first used a substance at age 11 or younger reported a co-occurring mental disorder – the highest rate of any of the age groups

As the age of  first use of drugs or alcohol increases, the number of substances abused at time of admission to addiction treatment declines. The authors also  note that adolescents can grow into habitual abuse of alcohol and drugs within three years of initiation. These data indicate the need for continuous but targeted preventative interventions with elementary-to-middle-school-age students. For example, the risk factors for young children are usually related to the family, whereas adolescents may experience ongoing pressure from peers who use illegal substances, so strategies to address these factors while building up protective factors will also vary.

Information on drug prevention programs and resource guides for parents and teachers are available at the SAMHSA website.




Report Citation:  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (July 17, 2014).The TEDS Report: Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30. Rockville, MD.