WASHINGTON -- The rate of illegal drug use in the United States rose last year to the highest level in nearly a decade, and the nation's top drug adviser said a growing acceptance of medical marijuana could be to blame.
"I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to our young people," Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Associated Press.
Using marijuana for medical purposes now is legal in 14 states, and a handful will address the issue in some form on ballots in November. California, which became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, will vote on whether to legalize recreational use of the drug.
Kerlikowske told CBS News that young people are being exposed to mixed messages about marijuana, and while it may have properties that have medicinal values, it is not medicine and in fact is "an entry drug."
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released Sept. 16 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, interviewed about 67,500 people in 2009 and found that 8.7 percent age 12 or older admitted to using an illicit drug during the past month. In 2008, the rate was 8 percent.
The annual survey, which began in 2002, is the primary source of information on the use of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco in the country.
Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug, the study found, and in 2009, 6.6 percent said they had used the drug during the past month, which would amount to 16.7 million. The rate was 6.1 percent in 2008 and 5.8 percent in 2007. The survey did not distinguish between medical and recreational marijuana use.
Also of note is that the use of methamphetamines increased by 60 percent last year and the use of ecstasy jumped by 37 percent. A 2006 law that said cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine must be placed behind pharmacy counters led to a drop in meth rates, but Kerlikowske told AP more people are getting around the law and meth is coming across the border from Mexico.
Earlier in the decade, a widespread public safety campaign warning youth about the dangers of ecstasy as a party drug led to a decline. The decline then led to fewer warnings.
"The last few years, I think we've taken our eye off the ball on ecstasy," Kerlikowske told AP.
Abuse of prescription drugs also proved problematic in the survey, as the rate rose slightly to nearly 3 percent of the population. Cocaine use continued to decline, however, down 32 percent from its peak in 2006. Tobacco use also declined, reaching a new low of 23.3 percent, though the report warned "the pace of improvement is stagnating."
Among unemployed adults age 18 or older in 2009, 17 percent admitted to being current illicit drug users, the study said. That number is compared to 8 percent of people employed full-time and 11.5 percent of those employed part-time.
The number of unemployed illicit drug users increased from 2007 to 2009, primarily because of an overall increase in the number of unemployed persons, yet researchers noted that most illicit drug users were employed.
In 2009, 4.2 percent of the population reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs during the past year, corresponding to 10.5 million people, the survey found.
Kerlikowske, in a statement regarding the survey Sept. 16, said the findings are disappointing but not surprising.
"Youth attitudes about the dangers of drugs have softened in the past couple of years. In the past this has often signaled that increases in use are coming," Kerlikowske said.
The National Drug Control Strategy, released earlier this year, emphasizes prevention, early intervention, treatment, smart law enforcement and support for people in recovery from addition.
"The federal government cannot do this alone. All levels of government, along with communities, parents and others who influence kids must work together," Kerlikowske said.
"There are two things that parents can do, today, to make a difference. First, talk to your kids about drugs. Make sure they know of the harms that can result from drug use and that you don't approve of them," he said. "Second, when you get home today, go through your medicine cabinet and remove unused or unneeded prescription drugs."
Survey results indicated that 21.2 percent of young adults experimented with illegal drugs in 2009, with the trend "driven in large part by the use of marijuana."