California Drug Abuse Statistics

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

It’s always useful to know how drug abuse statistics in your state compare to those in other states. Drug use by Californians has increased from 8.3% to 10.6%. Knowing drug abuse in California is important, as you and your loved ones could be affected by addiction at any time.

Around 8% of Californians meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder, but only 10% receive any type of treatment. The California Health Care Foundation has discovered that the majority of people with a substance use disorder in California are aged between 18 and 25 – almost twice as much as the average rate.

It is worrying if you consider how difficult and costly getting free from a substance use disorder can be. With such high rates in the younger population, you wonder at the prognosis of this generation as they age.

You’re likely aware of the opioid crisis that’s ravaging the US right now. Every US citizen’s life has been touched by drug abuse in some form or another. Federal agencies work hard to gather and report intelligence on drug abuse to understand the extent that it affects US citizens’ lives.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse presents a wealth of statistical research on drug abuse in the US. We can use this data to gain awareness of the mental, physical, and financial health of people in our community.

If you live in California, you might want to educate yourself on the current situation regarding drug use. Forewarned is being forearmed.

Today, we’ll summarize current drug abuse statistic rates in California in comparison to other states to give you a comprehensive picture of the state of play in December 2020.

These statistics will be subject to change as time goes on.

The pandemic situation has severely impacted rates of drug abuse nationwide, and California is no exception.

Today, we’ll explore topics from rates of drug overdose deaths and emergency room data to prevention, treatment, and the costs of substance use in California in comparison to other states.

Why It’s Important To Educate Yourself About Rates of Drug Abuse in California

Every one of us is different.

Some of us are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than others regardless of geographical location, genetics, social status, or financial status.

This means that if you and your loved ones live in a community where drug abuse is high, the likelihood of taking drugs is higher.

Experimenting with illicit substances may seem harmless on the surface. When drugs are more freely available, though, this can signal a gradual dependency on certain substances.

Another important consideration is the availability of opioids. Many people from all walks of life become addicted to these painkillers because they were suffering from pain, even successful sporty people who would never experiment with drugs. As prescriptions are so expensive some turn to street heroin to relieve withdrawals.

The current pandemic has seen an increase in all types of drug use. Marijuana sales in LA quadrupled during the early phase of the lockdown.

The Most Commonly Abused Drugs in California

  • 6.4% of Californians have an alcohol use disorder
  • 3.3% of Californians have a substance use disorder with illicit drugs
  • 0.6% have an addiction to pain medication

Alcohol Use Disorder in California

According to the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), the most widely abused substance in California is alcohol.

It’s legally sold, but it can be the most destructive substance of all when abused.

People typically start drinking alcohol when they are young. By 11th grade, more than half of the students will have tried drinking alcohol.

Alcohol is responsible for more non-fatal emergency room admissions than any other drug.


According to NIDA:

Adults who seek treatment for a Marijuana use disorder tend to have used it daily for 10 years. They typically try to stop six times before reaching out for help

Many people who abuse marijuana may have a co-occurring mental health disorder

The California Health Care Foundation has found that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in California with 34% of the population using it in the previous year. This is not surprising as recreational marijuana use has been legal since 2016.

After the Adult Use of Marijuana Act was passed in 2016, anyone over 21 years old can legally possess an ounce of marijuana or grow up to six plants.

How Has the Legalization of Marijuana Impacted Usage?

There is concern that the legalization of marijuana will lead to increased usage in teens. Studies on other states that have legalized marijuana show mixed reactions.

Colorado and Washington were the first two states to go down the legalization route. Surveys of 8th and 10th graders in Washington showed an increase in usage by 2% in 8th graders and 4.1% in 10th graders.

In Colorado, the study found no change in marijuana use among adolescents.

It is still early days to see how legalization impacts marijuana use. However, the US House of Representatives approved federal marijuana legislation in December 2020.

While there seems to be a low risk of increased marijuana use amongst adolescents, there will always be health risks associated with chronic and prolonged use.

One study highlights the potential of neurological damage in adolescents who use marijuana daily. The study showed that persistent prolonged use from adolescence to adulthood can cause significant cognitive decline.


While marijuana is the most widely abused drug in California, cigarette smoking is declining.

The California Department of Public Health found that adult cigarette smoking in California fell by 57.4% between 1988 and 2017.

Interestingly, in 2018, tobacco use is higher in American Indian, Pacific Islander, white and LGBTQ populations. These demographics are more likely to experience stress and be subject to inequality.

Opioids in California in Comparison To Other States

According to NIDA’s opioid summaries by state California has the lowest rate of drug overdose death rates in the country with less than 6.2 deaths per 100,000. By contrast, Ohio and West Virginia have the highest overdose rates in the country with more than 27.8 people per 100,000.

  • It is estimated that 45% of drug overdose deaths in California involved opioids
  • California has seen the largest increase in fentanyl deaths since 2017 where they rose by 60% in 2018
  • Heroin-related deaths have also risen, although death by prescription drugs fell in 2018. This could be due to the low prescription rates in the state
  • Opioids were implicated in 70% of drug deaths
  • Between 2017 and 2018, deaths by drug overdose declined by 4.1%

Prescription Painkillers

The current opioid crisis is a result of the over-prescription by doctors and pharmacists of opioid painkillers.

California has one of the lowest rates of opioid prescriptions compared to other states. That said, it is still a huge problem in California.

To raise awareness of the dangers of prescription painkillers, the Prescription Drug Take-Back Day occurs on 24th October. People can dispose of expired or surplus opioid painkillers safely and responsibly so they are kept out of harm’s way.


According to San Diego County health officials, fentanyl overdose deaths in California surged by 126% in the first six months of 2020 compared to 2019.

Drug cartels are flooding the drug market with lethal fentanyl. People are dying from fentanyl overdoses unaware that street drugs such as MDMA and amphetamines are often laced with fentanyl as a bulking agent.

In 2013, fentanyl was only implicated in 3% of deaths. In 2020, this figure climbed to 51% in March and April.

Fentanyl has found its way into counterfeit Xanax pills and is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Test trips are now available to test drugs for any fentanyl content so that people can stay safe.

Opioids and Pregnancy in California

The most recent data on neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) in California is from 2017. The NOWS rate in California 2.5 cases per 1000 births in contrast to Ohio which had 11.6 cases per 1000 births in 2018.

HIV and Injecting Drug Use

In 2017, 3,690 of the 36,226 new HIV diagnoses in California were due to drug users sharing needles. That’s around 10% of all new cases of HIV.  Interestingly, HIV infection rates by injecting drugs are higher among females than men.


The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program reports that suspected drug overdoses rose sharply by 18% in March 2020, 29% in April, and 42% in May.

Wuhan is one of the leading suppliers of chemicals used to make crystal meth and fentanyl. When the China lockdowns started in January, the Drug Enforcement Agency noticed a sharp rise in the price of crystal meth.

In November 2019 a pound of street crystal meth commanded $900, in March it had risen to $1800 due to decreased lab production in China. Interestingly, the price of other street drugs in California such as heroin and cocaine stayed the same.

Drug Cartels

The Drug Enforcement Agency has seized $9.5 million since March 2020 from drug cartels attempting to smuggle cash over the border to Mexico. The pandemic situation has halted drug production and money laundering as retail establishments are forced to remain closed.

Treatment Statistics

To combat the drug crisis treatment must be more widely accessible as addiction is very treatable. In 2018, only 10% of Californians with a substance use disorder received treatment for their addiction.

At the time of writing, 6000 California prison inmates are waiting for drug treatment. There is a huge backlog. As inmates repeatedly have their treatment rescheduled due to a lack of resources, they turn to the underground economy to maintain their habit.

Thousands have been granted early release to help reduce the spread of COVID in prisons. These people urgently need access to medication-assisted treatment programs to halt the opioid epidemic.

Oregon recently passed Measure 110, a bill to decriminalize hard drugs and see addiction as a public health issue rather than a legislative issue. There are hopes that LA will follow suit.

The Portugal model of addiction treatment has been a resounding success. The current situation in the US mirrors Portugal’s opioid crisis in the 1990s. After decriminalizing hard drugs and improving access to treatment, Portugal now has the lowest overdose death rate in Europe.

For the state to effectively combat the current situation, treatment rates ideally should be reaching 100%. If every addicted person were able to detox and stay on track there would be a high level of connectedness between them and their peers.

Medication-assisted treatment is considered the gold standard in drug treatment as it has high rates of success.

What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment is a holistic evidence-based treatment. It combines cognitive behavior therapy and counseling with prescription medication.

Addiction is often accompanied by a mental health disorder. A quality treatment center will often diagnose an addicted person with anxiety, depression, bipolar, or PTSD before addiction. This is referred to as a dual diagnosis.

A person with a dual diagnosis could be addicted to:

  • Heroin
  • Prescription painkillers
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Methamphetamine
  • Amphetamine

By treating the root cause of a person’s addiction it is possible to lessen the chance of relapse once they have detoxed.


Diagnosing a person with a dual diagnosis can be tricky. They may have more than one mental health disorder and be addicted to more than one substance. Unfortunately, dual diagnoses are common and more difficult to treat.

Diagnosis of an addicted person’s mental health must only be performed by a highly-skilled psychiatrist.

Types of Treatment Program

For maximum success, a person should ideally attend a Southern California treatment center such as Renaissance Recovery. This shields a person from the environmental triggers that can cause them to relapse. Drug rehab in California delivers high-quality medication-assisted treatment programs with high success rates.

Outpatient Treatment Program

Homeless people or people whose home environment is stressful can benefit greatly from an Outpatient Treatment Program. Alcohol treatment in Orange County is often delivered as an Outpatient Treatment Program.

The Outpatient Program at Renaissance Recovery entails staying at a facility in Orange County but with the freedom to come and go. This program is ideal for those who can’t attend as an inpatient but still need the structure and intensiveness of an intensive outpatient program.

This program starts with a comprehensive assessment of a person’s addiction to history. From the information gathered at this stage, a tailored treatment plan is devised.

Treatment sessions such as group therapy, family therapy, and counseling help people in rehab to grasp the causes of their habit. These therapies help a person to build resolve and learn to manage their recovery once they have left rehab.

By the end of the program, a person is well equipped and primed to start a healthier and productive new life.

Intensive Outpatient Program

Realistically, people have busy lives and for some, they can’t abandon their responsibilities to attend as a residential inpatient.

IOP Orange County allows a person to receive treatment while maintaining their family or work commitments.

To attend this program a person must have a stable and supportive home environment that is conducive to emotional healing.

This program has high rates of success. Often people who have previously failed to maintain a successful recovery find the Intensive Outpatient Program has a level of intensity that strengthens their resolve to stay clean.

Every aspect of a person’s life is examined during this program from family life to childhood trauma. This holistic approach leaves no stone unturned and provides a significant transformation to an addicted person’s life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The type of cognitive behavioral therapy a person receives will depend on their diagnosis. Therapy enables a person to explore the root cause of their addiction and learn healthier ways of coping with withdrawal symptoms.

Examples of cognitive behavioral therapy include:

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Holistic therapy
  • Vocational development

Prescription Medicine

Drug treatment also involves prescription medicine, which is especially vital if a person is withdrawing from alcohol. Prescription medicine helps a person to withdraw safely and reduces the severity of symptoms.

Curricular Activities

While detoxing and in recovery, a person needs to pursue activities to keep occupied. People who attend Renaissance Recovery can benefit from a wide range of outdoor activities such as:

  • Paddleboarding
  • Surfing
  • Paintballing
  • Beach bonfires
  • Snowboarding
  • Hiking at Crystal Cove and Runyon Canyon
  • Go Karting

Learning to enjoy life and take joy in physical group activities is a wonderful way to connect with others while boosting mood.

Sports such as surfing and snowboarding helps the body to produce endorphins. They also help to build a person’s confidence and their ability to enjoy activities that don’t involve taking substances.

Final Thoughts

Substance use disorders are treatable. There is no need to continue suffering.

By healing your addiction you can help others to stay strong in their recovery.

The first few months will be tough, but the skills you can learn at Renaissance Recovery will enable you to deal with those difficult times.

You may feel a little shaky at the beginning, but the first-class treatment at Renaissance Recovery means a far greater chance of successful recovery than if you try to detox alone.866.330.9449

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

Paige R

“Renaissance Recovery truly changed my life.”

Courtney S

” I’m grateful for my experience at Renaissance, the staff are very experienced, they gave me the hope I needed in early sobriety, and a variety of coping mechanisms that I can use on a daily basis.”

Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country