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Women, Girls and Drugs: Facts & Figures


Extent of Use
Health Effects
Arrests & Sentencing
Other Links

A three-year study on women and young girls (ages 8–22) from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University revealed that girls and young women use substances for reasons different than boys and young men. The study also found that the signals and situations of higher risk are different and that girls and young women are more vulnerable to abuse and addiction: they get hooked faster and suffer the consequences sooner than boys and young men.1

In 2007, lifetime, past year, and past month drug use rates were lower for women than for men.2 Women accounted for 32.3% of the nationwide admissions to treatment during 2007.3


Extent of Use

According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 42.9% of women ages 12 or older reported using an illicit drug at some point in their lives. Approximately 12.2% of females ages 12 and older reported past year use of an illicit drug and 6.3% reported past month use of an illicit drug. 4

The rate of substance dependence or abuse for males aged 12 or older in 2008 was nearly twice as high as the rate for females (11.5% vs. 6.4%). Among youths aged 12 to 17, however, the rate of substance dependence or abuse was higher among females than males (8.2% vs. 7.0%).5

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 34.5% of female high school students surveyed nationwide in 2007 used marijuana during their lifetime. This is down from 35.9% in 2005 and 37.6% in 2003. Inhalant abuse among surveyed high school females has increased from 11.4% in 2003, to 13.5% in 2005 and 14.3% in 2007.6

Percent of High School Females Reporting Drug Use, 2003–2007

Drug Type




Lifetime marijuana




Current marijuana




Lifetime cocaine




Current cocaine




Lifetime inhalant




Lifetime heroin




Lifetime methamphetamine




Lifetime Ecstasy




Lifetime Steroid




According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 59.3% of State and 47.6% of Federal female prisoners surveyed in 2004 indicated that they used drugs in the month before their offense. Additionally, approximately 60.2% of State and 42.8% of Federal female prisoners surveyed in 2004 met drug dependence or abuse criteria.7


Health Effects

A National Vital Statistics Report found that 38,396 persons died of drug-induced causes in 2006. Of the drug-induced deaths, 13,889 were females. Drug-induced deaths include deaths from dependent and nondependent use of drugs (legal and illegal use) and poisoning from medically prescribed and other drugs. It excludes unintentional injuries, homicides, and other causes indirectly related to drug use. Also excluded are newborn deaths due to mother's drug use.8

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) collects data on drug-related visits to emergency departments (ED) nationwide. In 2006, there were 1,742,887 drug related ED episodes. The rates of ED visits involving cocaine, marijuana, and heroin were higher for males than females, but the rates for stimulants did not differ by gender during 2006. 9

Number of Female ED Drug Mentions, 2006

Drug Type










MDMA (ecstasy)






All illicit drugs


The impact of drug use and addiction can be far reaching. Cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and lung disease can all be affected by drug abuse. Some of these effects occur when drugs are used at high doses or after prolonged use, while some may occur after just one use. Drug abuse not only weakens the immune system but is also linked to risky behaviors like needle sharing and unsafe sex. The combination greatly increases the likelihood of acquiring HIV-AIDS, hepatitis and many other infectious diseases.10

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services manual, A Guide to the Clinical Care of Women with HIV/AIDS, addresses the primary care needs unique to women infected with HIV infection and provides information specifically about substance abuse among these women. Also see the National Institutes of Health's AIDSinfo site on General Information for Women to learn more about the prevention, treatment, and impact of HIV/AIDS on females.

Effects on Pregnancy

Alcohol and drug use by pregnant women is a public health problem with potentially severe consequences. Combined data from the 2002 to 2007 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health shows that past month alcohol use was highest among women who were not pregnant and did not have children living in the household (63.0%) and lowest for women in the second and third trimesters (7.8 and 6.2%, respectively). Similar patters were seen among women for marijuana, cigarette and binge alcohol use.11

Research has shown that babies born to women who used marijuana during their pregnancies display altered responses to visual stimuli, increased tremulousness, and a high-pitched cry, which may indicate problems with neurological development.12 Heroin abuse during pregnancy and its many associated environmental factors (e.g., lack of prenatal care) have been associated with adverse consequences including low birth weight, an important risk factor for later developmental delay.13 Knowledge of the effects of methamphetamine during pregnancy is limited. However, the few human studies that exist on the subject have shown increased rates of premature delivery, placental abruption, fetal growth retardation, and heart and brain abnormalities. These studies, though, are difficult to interpret due to methodological issues, such as small sample size and maternal use of other drugs.14

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has created a Prenatal Effects page to focus on the impact that a mother's drug use can have on the developing fetus.



Of the approximately 1.8 million admissions to drug/alcohol treatment in the U.S. during 2007, 32.3% were female. For 18% of the female admissions in 2007, alcohol only was the primary substance of abuse. Fifteen percent involved alcohol along with a secondary drug.15

Female Admissions by Primary Substance, 2007

Drug Type

% of Total



Alcohol with secondary drug




Other opiates




Cocaine-other route






Other stimulants












Other/none specified


According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) 2007 National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS), which presents data from more than 13,000 facilities, approximately 32% of the facilities offered special programs or groups for adult women and 14% offered programs or groups for pregnant or postpartum women.16

SAMHSA offers a Treatment Facility Locator service to aid in identifying treatment programs throughout the country. Using the Treatment Facility Locator site, individuals can search for programs/facilities in their area and can also identify facilities that offer special programs for females. This information can also be obtained by calling 800-662-HELP (4357).


Arrests & Sentencing

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, during 2007, there were a total of 1,033,203 state and local arrests for drug abuse violations in the United States where gender information was available. Of these drug abuse violation arrests, 199,262 involved females.17

In FY 2004, the U.S. Marshals Service arrested and booked 19,434 female suspects for Federal offenses, representing 13.8% of the total arrests made by this agency. Of the U.S. Marshals Service arrestees booked on drug offense charges, 14.5% were female. Also in FY 2004, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested 4,285 females, representing 15.6% of all DEA arrests. Approximately 1,188 of the female DEA arrests in FY 2004 involved methamphetamine.18

Females Arrested by the DEA, by Type of Drug, FY 2004

Drug Category

Total arrested

Powered cocaine


Crack cocaine








Other or non-drug


From October 1, 2002 to September 30, 2003, there were 9,127 female offenders convicted of a Federal offense. Approximately 82.3% of the female offenders convicted of felony drug offenses in FY 2003 were sentenced to incarceration. On September 30, 2003, there were 10,493 female offenders in Federal prison. Females accounted for 8.0% of the Federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.19

At yearend 2005, there were approximately 88,200 sentenced female prisoners under State jurisdiction. Approximately 28.7% of incarcerated females were sentenced for drug offenses compared to 18.9% of incarcerated males.20

During FY 2008, there were 25,332 Federal defendants whose gender was reported to the U.S. Sentencing Commission who were charged with a drug offense. Approximately 12.3% of these defendants were female. For 17.4% of the female defendants, methamphetamine was the type of drug involved in the case.21

Females Sentenced for Drug Offenses, by Type of Drug, FY 2008

Drug Category

Total sentenced

Power cocaine


Crack cocaine












A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report found that about half of women offenders confined in State prisons had been using alcohol, drugs, or both at the time of the offense for which they had been incarcerated. About 6 in 10 women in State prison described themselves as using drugs in the month before the offense and 5 in 10 described themselves as a daily user of drugs. Nearly 1 in 3 women serving time in State prisons said they had committed the offense which brought them to prison in order to obtain money to support their need for drugs.22

A report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), that summarized research on female gangs, states that drug offenses are among the most common offenses committed by female gang members. In Los Angeles County, an analysis of lifetime arrest records of female gang members revealed that drug offenses were the most frequent cause for arrest. A special tabulation from Chicago showed that between 1993 and 1996, either drug offenses or violent offenses were the most common cause for arrest of female gang members.23


Other Links

Girls and Drugs: A New Analysis: Recent Trends, Risk Factors and Consequences (PDF)
This report provides analysis of recent findings on drug and alcohol use trends among girls.

The National Women's Health Information Center (NWHIC)
NWHIC provides a gateway to the vast array of Federal and other women's health information resources.

Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH)
ORWH serves as the focal point for women's health research at the National Institutes of Health.

Publications on Women and Drugs
A listing of publications related to women and drugs from various sources.

Women and Gender Research
NIDA's Women and Gender Research Coordinator serves to promote, conduct, and disseminate research on women's health and gender differences.



1 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse Among Girls and Young Women Ages 8–22 (PDF), February 2003.

2 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, September 2008

3 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Highlights for 2007 Treatment Episode Data Set, February 2009

4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, September 2009

5 Ibid.

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: Youth Online: Comprehensive Results

7 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004, October 2006

8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Deaths: Final Data for 2006, April 2009

9 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2006: National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits (PDF), August 2008

10 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse

11 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, The NSDUH Report: Substance Use among Women During Pregnancy and Following Childbirth, May 2009

12 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Marijuana Abuse Research Report, 2005

13 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Heroin Abuse and Addiction Research Report, 2005

14 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Methamphetamine Abuse Research Report, 2006

15 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Highlights for 2007 Treatment Episode Data Set, February 2009

16 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2007 National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services, November 2008

17 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2007, September 2008

18 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Compendium of Federal Justice Statistics, 2004, December 2006

19 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Compendium of Federal Justice Statistics, 2003, October 2005

20 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2007, December 2008

21 U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2008 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, 2009

22 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Women Offenders, December 1999.

23 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Female Gangs: A Focus on Research, March 2001.


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