Pennsylvania, the fifth largest state in the United States, with a population of approximately 13 million, is no stranger to drug activity. The city of Philadelphia is a major distribution center and shipment point for illicit drugs in the mid-Atlantic region. Drug traffickers use the state’s extensive interstate and state highway system and busy ports to transport illicit substances. Colombian and Dominican drug traffickers are predominant in the state, although Mexican groups have also made inroads. [1]

Substance abuse is a problem in Pennsylvania much like the rest of the country and indeed the world. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2017 showed that nearly 1 in 4 young adults in Pennsylvania (between the ages of 18 and 25) reported illicit drug use in the past month. [2] Also, 6 out of 10 adults (18+) in the state reported past-month alcohol use, with 28% of alcohol users reporting binge drinking within the past month. [2]

In 2018, there were nearly 4,500 drug-related overdose deaths in the state, representing a 36% increase over 2015. [3] The primary drugs of concern in Pennsylvania include fentanyl, which is responsible for 70% of drug overdose deaths, followed by heroin (35% of overdose deaths), cocaine (32%), benzodiazepines (28%), alcohol (18%), and prescription medications (17%). [3]

In the following paragraphs, we will take a deep dive into substance abuse in Pennsylvania, exploring some of the most pressing concerns the state faces. Call our addiction helpline if you need help.

Alcohol and Drug Use by Pennsylvania Youth

The Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) 2019 surveyed more than 280,000 students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 in 413 school districts, representing nearly 75% of all PA eligible students.

The survey found that the top risk factors for young people becoming involved in drug use, violence, school dropout, and delinquency in the state were low commitment to school, perceived risk of drug use, parental attitudes favoring anti-social behavior, low neighborhood attachment, and depressive symptoms. The results of the survey found that 4 out of 10 young people had five or more risk factors among 6th and 8th graders and seven or more risk factors among 10th and 12th graders.

Alcohol Use by Adolescents in Pennsylvania

The 2019 PAYS showed that alcohol usage among youth in Pennsylvania is higher than the national average: 63% of Pennsylvania 12th graders report using alcohol, compared to the national average of 58%. The good news is that lifetime use of alcohol has continued to show a decline in all surveyed students, reported by around 17% of the youth in 2019. Also, the number of 12th graders who reported drinking and driving declined from nearly 9% in 2013 to 4% in 2019. However, the number of 12th graders who reported driving after using marijuana remains high, at nearly 10%.

Most students reported that their sources for obtaining alcohol were taking it without permission (40%), giving someone money to buy it for them (38%), and getting it from their parents (25%). [4]

Tobacco and Marijuana Use by Youth in Pennsylvania

Approximately 7.5% of 12th graders in Pennsylvania report use of cigarettes within the past 30 days—this is higher than the national rate of 5.7%. The use of smokeless tobacco is also higher in Pennsylvania 12th graders, at 11.8% compared to a 9.8% national average. However, both of these metrics have shown a decline, from approximately 19% and 10% respectively in 2013.

Marijuana use by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in Pennsylvania has declined or remained constant between 2017 and 2019. Roughly 1 in 3 of the surveyed 12th graders reported they were willing to try marijuana. More adolescents in Pennsylvania reported using marijuana compared to tobacco.

PA students reported vaping (using e-cigarettes) at a higher rate than the national average among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Nearly 70% of 12th graders reported vaping nicotine use in 2019, compared to 43% in 2017.

Prescription Drug Use by Students in Pennsylvania

According to the 2019 PAYS, narcotic use in the last 30 days decreased by 0.6%. Lifetime use of stimulants also decreased, from 9.7% in 2015 to 4.2% in 2019. Of the 12th graders who reported using prescription drugs in the past year, 40% said a family member or friend gave it to them.

Alcohol Abuse in Pennsylvania

A recent survey showed that nearly 60% of adults in Pennsylvania consume alcohol and nearly 29% report binge drinking, making the Keystone State one of the heaviest-drinking states in the country. Washington DC ranked no.1 on the survey, with Pennsylvania coming in at no. 16.[5] The report also stated that PA residents spent $2.5 billion on wine and spirits (not including beer) in 2018–2019.

Here are some stats that demonstrate the public health problem of excessive alcohol use in Pennsylvania. [6]

  • Based on the Prevention Status Report 2013, excessive alcohol use costs the state $8.3 billion.
  • In 2013, roughly 18% of adults reported binge drinking, at par with the national average.
  • Alcohol consumption was 2.2 gallons per person per year in Pennsylvania in 2010, similar to the national value of 2.3 gallons per person.
  • Binge drinking among high-school students showed a steady decline, from nearly 30% in 2003 to just over 20% in 2011.

Opioid Abuse in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania opioid crisis is evident from the following numbers reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2018. [7]

  • Roughly 65% of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania involved opioids (2,866 deaths out of 4,415).
  • Providers wrote 49.9 prescriptions for opioid medications per 100 persons in PA, compared to the U.S. national average of 51.4.
  • There were 1,088 new diagnoses of HIV in Pennsylvania in 2017, of which more than 11% were attributed to intravenous drug use among males and 19% among females.

Heroin Abuse in Pennsylvania

In recent years, heroin abuse in Pennsylvania has been rising and now ranks higher than cocaine. Highly pure heroin, which can be smoked or snorted instead of injected, is now marketed in mid-sized towns and cities in addition to large urban areas in Pennsylvania. The largest market for heroin in PA remains Philadelphia, however. A 4-square-mile area called the Badlands is notorious for drug distribution and violence, so much so that the Pennsylvania State Attorney General created a special heroin enforcement team to disrupt operations here.

Based on figures from the year 2000, males accounted for 6 out of 10 admissions in state heroin treatment programs. Roughly 60–75% of the people admitted to these programs were White, 11–13% were Black, and 7–9% were Hispanic. Heroin abuse by youth in Pennsylvania is a serious concern. Users above the age of 25 constitute the largest percentage of heroin abusers in the state.

More recently, SAMHSA surveys show that 1% of adults (between ages 18 and 25) reported heroin use within the past year in 2016–2017.


Cocaine Addiction in Pennsylvania

Cocaine abuse is a concerning problem in Pennsylvania. Every third drug-overdose death is attributed to this drug. Both powdered cocaine and crack/cocaine are widely available, supplied mostly by Colombian and Dominican cartels operating out of Philadelphia and New York City. In western PA, Pittsburgh is a cocaine distribution center.

SAMHSA reports that 5.5% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 reported cocaine use within the past year in 2016–2017.

Methamphetamine Trends in Pennsylvania

Production, distribution, and abuse of meth in Pennsylvania are limited. In the year 2000, admissions to state drug rehab facilities with methamphetamine as the primary drug of abuse accounted for less than 1% of all admissions. However, the drug is available throughout the state, typically in smaller quantities (except in Philadelphia, where larger quantities of meth are sold).

In 1999, just under 7% of federal criminal defendants were sentenced for meth-related offenses, compared to nearly 13% nationally. [8] More recently, SAMHSA surveys in 2016–2017 found that 0.75% of young adults (ages 18–25) in Pennsylvania reported methamphetamine use in the past year.

Methamphetamine and cocaine abuse have been rising in Pennsylvania in the past few years, with prescription opioids and heroin deaths leveling off, mirroring nationwide trends.

Marijuana Use in Pennsylvania

Based on surveys conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2016–2017, roughly 33% or 1 in 3 adults in Pennsylvania between the ages of 18 and 25 reported marijuana use in the past month.

Resources for Recovering Addicts in Pennsylvania

There is a wide range of substance abuse services available in Pennsylvania, not least calling our drug and alcohol abuse hotline on (844) 289-0879 to seek help. Community-based drug and alcohol rehab programs are administered through SCAs (single county authorities). The SCAs determine a person’s eligibility for treatment and funding and make referrals to the appropriate facilities based on the person’s service needs.

If you live in Pennsylvania and are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, or if someone you love needs addiction treatment, you can find SCA locations online. If you would like to safely dispose of unused prescription drugs and keep them from getting into the wrong hands, you can find the nearest drug take-back location online as well. Also available to Pennsylvania residents are 45 Centers of Excellence, which are a one-stop solution for opioid use disorders.

Last updated: March 9, 2023


1 National Drug Intelligence Center. Pennsylvania Drug Threat Assessment- Overview. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
2 SAMHSA. CBHSQ Pennsylvania. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
3 University of Pittsburgh. Overdose Free PA Death Data Review. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
4 Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. 2019 PA Youth Survey Statewide Report Highlights. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
5 Philly Voice. Study puts Pennsylvania among nation’s heaviest drinking states. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevention Status Report 2013. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
7 National Institute on Drug Abuse. Pennsylvania: Opioid-Involved Deaths and Related Harms. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.
8 National Drug Intelligence Center. Pennsylvania Drug Threat Assessment-Methamphetamine. Available online. Accessed on June 10, 2021.