WASHINGTON » The rate of illegal drug use rose last year to the highest level in nearly a decade, fueled by a sharp increase in marijuana use and a surge in ecstasy and methamphetamine abuse, the government reported yesterday.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the 9 percent increase in drug use disappointing but said he was not surprised given "eroding attitudes" about the perception of harm from illegal drugs and the growing number of states approving medicinal marijuana.
"I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to our young people," Kerlikowske said.
The annual report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found marijuana use rose by 8 percent and it remained the most commonly used drug.
On a positive note, cocaine abuse continues to decline, with use of the drug down 32 percent from its peak in 2006.
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About 21.8 million Americans, or 8.7 percent of the population age 12 and older, reported using illegal drugs in 2009. That’s the highest level since the survey began in 2002. The previous high was slightly more than 20 million in 2006.
The survey, which was being released today, is based on interviews with about 67,500 people. It is considered the most comprehensive annual snapshot of U.S. drug use.
Other results show a 37 percent increase in ecstasy use and a 60 percent jump in the number of methamphetamine users. In the early 2000s, there was a widespread public safety campaign to warn young people about the dangers of ecstasy as a party drug, but that effort declined as use dropped off.
"The last few years, I think we’ve taken our eye off the ball on ecstasy," Kerlikowske said.
Meth use had been dropping after passage of a 2006 federal law that put cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters. But law enforcement officials have seen a rise in "smurfing," or traveling from store to store to purchase the medicines, which can be used to produce homemade meth in kitchen labs.
Kerlikowske attributed the rise in meth abuse to more people getting around the law and an increase in meth coming across the border with Mexico.