California Drug and Alcohol Statistics

A look at who is using drugs in California and how is the state coping. Check out this brief statistical report for 2018 here.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: A brief statistical guide to California’s alcohol and drug problems. A look at who is using drugs and alcohol…and how is the state dealing with this health problem.



Teen and Adolescents
Men and Women
State Prisoners

In 2017, almost 1/3 of California addiction admissions were for problem drinking.

Drug Use in California

According to 2015-2016 survey conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, called the NSDUH, the total number of people aged 12 or older in California who reported illicit drug use in the past month was 4,097,000. This represents about 12.5 % of all people 12 and older in the State. By comparison, the national average for the same year was 10.36 %. [1]

Some key points in this report include:

  • 50% of Californians reported alcohol use in the past month.
  • Binge drinking accounts for almost ¼ of this consumption.
  • 5% of Californians aged 12 or older reported pain reliever misuse in the past year.
  • 3% of Californians could be diagnosed with an illicit drug use disorder in the past year.

When it comes to marijuana, California is historically one of the most tolerant states. Laws have officially legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use. 10.51% reported marijuana use in the past month. But what drugs are really a problem in the state?

In 2017, almost 32% of California drug treatment admissions were for amphetamines [2]. This includes drugs like meth, Adderall, or Ritalin. Other popular drugs of abuse, as measured by substance use treatment admissions in California include:

  • Heroin, 24.9%
  • Marijuana, 12.7 %
  • Alcohol, 11.8%
  • Opiates other than heroin, 4.6%
  • Cocaine, 3%

Marijuana is the most popular substance among adolescents in California.

So, who is using drugs in the State of California? Here’s a demographic breakdown divided by categories of gender and age:


Marijuana use is seen in just a little more than 10 % of CA adults. Approximately 4 % of adults reported illicit drug use other than marijuana in the past month. And 54 % used alcohol in the past month. Illicit drug addiction and pain reliever disorders were most prevalent among young adults, 18 to 25.

Teen and Adolescents

 Although teen substance abuse has declined in recent years, it still remains an issue of public concern [3]. Being one of the most populous and diverse states in the U.S., 23% of California’s population is younger than 18 years. So what are the patterns of drug use observed among teens and adolescents in California?
  • 14% teens reported using marijuana in the past year.
  • 10% teens reported using alcohol in the past year.
  • 1 % teens reported using cocaine in the past year.
  • 0.08% teens reported using heroin in the past year.


Men and women

62% of Californians who use substances are men, while 37.9 % are women.

State prisoners

 Among inmates, from 2006 to 2016, the number of drug overdose death rates has increased. And, drug overdoses ranks fifth in top causes of death among California inmates, with 29 overdose cases in 2016. The average age of at death among inmates was 42.

Drug Trafficking

Under current California law, it is a felony to import, distribute or transport controlled substances, illegal drugs, and legally prescribed medications. However, drug trafficking is prevalent in CA. In fact, the main gateway for illicit drug trafficking to the United States is the Southwest Border.

The proximity of the Mexican border makes California a popular state for drug traffickers. Mexican transnational criminal organizations use California as a port of entry to smuggle heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine foreign marijuana with high potency across the border. Also, they use Northern California as a main corridor for illicit drugs smuggled to Canada. [4]

Members of California-based street gangs cooperate with Mexican traffickers to distribute drugs.Also, high-potency marijuana is still produced at illicit indoor grow sites in the state and criminal groups exploit California’s medical marijuana laws. [5] There was a sharp decline of methamphetamine seizures across the borders in 2017, but since then there is an increase, especially on the southern California border. Moreover, many tunnels have been recently discovered built for the purpose of drug trafficking.

The Opioid Crisis in California

Just like any other state, the opioid epidemic is an economic burden and a health problem in California. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were just over 2,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in California in 2016. [6] So what is the state doing?

In 2015, the CDC awarded a four year grant to the California Department of Public Health with the aim of implementing strategies for fighting the opioid crisis. [7] The strategy includes suggestions for:

  • Data driven interventions
  • Increased access to treatment
  • Implementation of safe prescribing policy
  • Naloxone distribution
  • Promotion and use of CURES
  • Public education campaign

Addiction Treatment Statistics

So, who’s seeking treatment in California? From the data taken by SAMHSA Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) in 2017, alcohol was the most commonly reported primary substance of abuse by female (33%) and male (42%) admissions.

Among women, alcohol was followed by:

  • Heroin, 15.3%
  • Marijuana, 14.6%
  • Prescription pain relievers, 13.8%

Among men, the next most frequently reported substances were:

  • Marijuana, 20%
  • Heroin, 15%
  • Prescription pain relievers, 7.8%

2017 DASIS Treatment Admissions in California


The crime rate in California has declined since the 1990s. The overall crime rate in 2011 was below the national average. Still, 58% of the crimes committed in 2010 were for property and drug crimes. The most common drug crimes were for drug possession and sales. [8]In 2015, 45.4% of misdemeanor arrests were either alcohol or drug related. [9]

In 2017, however, there was a considerable decrease in drug related arrest in comparison with the previous years. The following table from the California Justice Open Crime Statistics site outlines the increases.

A BAC in California over .08% is considered legally impaired.


California DUI laws recognize driving under the influence as two separate offenses:

1. Under Vehicle Code section 23152(a) VCyou can be charged for driving under the influence when using prescription or illicit drugs.

2. Under Vehicle Code section 23152(b) VCyou can be charged for driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher.

Moreover, it is illegal in California to drive when:

  • Your BAC is 0.08% or higher, if you are 21 years old or older.
  • Your BAC is 0.01% or higher, if you are under 21 years old.
  • Your BAC is 0.01% or higher at any age, if you are on DUI probation.

Statistics reported in the 2016 NSDUH show that 20.7 million people aged 16 or older drove under the influence of alcohol in the past year; 11.8 million drove under the influence of illicit drugs in 2016. Like other states, men in California are more likely than women to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

From 2015 to 2016 the number of traffic fatalities related to DUI has increased. Alcohol impaired driving fatalities increased form 26.9 % to 29.3 % in 2016 while drug impaired driving fatalities has decreased. [10]

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) have agreed to a minimum set of performance measures to be used by state agencies. California has also agreed to develop and implement highway safety plans and programs in order to ensure better traffic safety. [11]


Drug overdose is a serious problem in California. According to the CDC, there were 4,674 drug overdose deaths in California in 2016. [12] Prescription opioid deaths have nearly tripled in the past years, with heroin death increases, as well. These numbers from 2017 are indicative of the seriousness of the problem [13]:

  • 21 million opioid prescriptions were written in California
  • 2196 total opioid deaths occurred in California.
  • 429 Fentanyl deaths occurred in California.
  • 4281 opioid overdose emergency room visits occurred in the state.

This alarming rate has led to advocacy for naloxone, an opiate antagonist, being added to the Medi-Cal formulary. This means that Medicare will cover naloxone as well.

Among inmates it seems that the opioid crisis the nation is facing is also mirrored in the state prisons. [14]. The drugs involved in the overdose death among inmates were:

  • 11 cases of opioid overdose, four of which were due to fentanyl.
  • 9 cases of methamphetamine overdose
  • 5 cases of methamphetamine and opiates combination
  • 2 cases of intravenous drug of unknown origin
  • 2 cases of non-opioid prescribed medication

Drug Courts

There is a close link between substance abuse and criminal behavior. Drug courts are specialized courts that handle drug related cases. In California there are over 128 drug courts, with 49 out of the 58 counties represented. These courts offer treatment services to the people battling addiction. For more on how drug courts work, see our article about California drug courts here.

30 days is the minimum time for treatment to be effective.

Getting Help

If you need help for a drink or drug problem…know that treatment is just a call away.

Don’t wait. Call us for more information about rehab in California.Our hotline is completely free of charge, guaranties anonymity, andis available 24/7. On the other end of the line is a trained operator who is:

  • Kind
  • Nonjudgmental
  • Polite
  • Supportive

The person will listen to your problems, offer strategies, and provide you with information about addiction treatment.When you call the helpline, be prepared to answer these questions:

What is your drug of choice?
How long have you been using it?
Do you know the harm of a prolonged drug use?
Do you know your treatment options?

We know that the first step is the hardest.

Call us today and you’ll start on the road to recovery.

Reputable treatment programs will be operated by experienced licensed clinical doctors, medical staff, and psychologists. However, there are few things to look for when choosing for the right rehab for you. This includes:

1. Accreditation. Confirm that the rehab you choose meets the standards for high quality by the California Health and Human Services Agency. Don’t forget to check up the licenses of the clinicians and medical staff. Also, you may look for  CARF certification, the Commission of Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. This is another plus when looking for a quality rehabcenter.

2. Quality program. A good rehab program will address substance use disorder from every angle including mental health issues, emotionalpain, and other underlying causes. Keep in mind that there is no a’quick fix’ rehab program: addiction recovery is a slow process that requires a lot of patient work. Moreover, you need time to recover. So, the right program will last 30, 60, or 90 days.

3. Personal issues.Search a program that fits your individual needs. Some of the most common factors that will influence your final result include your medical history, mental health issues, and other medical conditions. Be sure to choose a program that accommodates your:

  • Age
  • Budget
  • Family and social support
  • Gender orientation
  • Insurance coverage

Here are some useful contacts:

Or, call our helpline.

Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Reference Sources:
[1] The 2016 NSDUH
[2] DASIS Treatment Episode Database
[3] National Institute of Health: Teen Substance Use Shows Promising Decline
[4] Department of Justice: NDIC Northern California
[5] Department of Justice: NDIC Publications
[6] NIDA: Opioid Summaries by State for California
[7] CDC: Prescription Overdose Program
[8] Criminal Justice Primer
[9] OAG California
[10] NHTSA: Traffic Injuries
[11] CA OTS 2017 Annual Report
[12] CDC: Pressroom for California Overdoses
[13] CDPH: 2017 Opioid Overdose in California 
[14] CCHCS: Inmate Death Reviews
CURES Program
CA State Drug Courts Overview
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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