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The Time Cost of Drug Use

People who use drugs regularly spend a significant amount of time under the influence,  especially if they continue to use drugs frequently for long periods of time. We recently looked at the potential monetary costs associated with both short and long-term addictions to various illicit substances, and found the financial consequences of an addiction can be staggering. There are of course other opportunity costs associated with drug use outside of just the financial costs.

When drug users spend time under the influence of drugs they miss out on the chance to spend time doing other things – this can be as simple as missed quality time spent with friends and family or as serious as missing out on the chance to further an education or career. In order to illustrate the time cost of drug use, we looked at the milestones or life events people could have achieved in the time they spent under the influence of drugs in a 5-, 15-, and 25-year time period.


Using data from the SAMHSA survey on the average number of days drug users used various substances per week, we determined the approximate number of days per year a drug user gets high. We combined those with the average length of a high for various substances to work into the hours spent high over a 5-, 15-, and 25-year timeframe. We included cocaine, heroin, marijuana, meth, and opioids in our study.

Next, we compared these numbers of hours with the approximate amount of time it takes to complete various career, skill development, and personal life milestones to calculate the number of times each could have been achieved in the 3 timeframes. Lastly, using federal minimum wage, we calculated the amount that could have been earned in wages if the time was spent working in a minimum wage job.

The Time Cost of Cocaine Use Over Time

the time cost of regular cocaine use

We first looked at the time costs associated with using cocaine regularly. According to the SAMHSA survey, cocaine users get high about 5 times per month. The high associated with cocaine is the shortest of the substances we looked at, so while the time costs aren’t quite as drastic as the other substances, they are still substantial. Most notably, in the time spent using cocaine regularly over a 25-year period, users could have trained for and run almost 20 marathons and completed the training required to fly a plane 24 times.

The Time Cost of Heroin Use Over Time

the time cost of regularly heroin use

The average high from using heroin is longer than cocaine, and users tend to use heroin more frequently at an average of 9.4 days per month. As a result, the opportunity costs are more startling for users. In the 5-year timeframe spent high on heroin, users could have learned almost 4 foreign languages, completed half of the school and study required to become a lawyer, and road-tripped around the United States 10 times.

The Time Cost of Marijuana Use Over Time

the time cost of regularly using marijuana

According to SAMHSA, marijuana users get high almost every other day on average, and all of that time under the influence adds up over time. In the time spent regularly using marijuana over a 15-year timeframe, users could have earned the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Volunteer Work, a prestigious recognition that requires 4,000 hours of service to be completed by an individual. Imagine the positive impact that could have been made on a drug user’s local community in that volume of volunteer hours.

The Time Cost of Meth Use Over Time

the time cost of regularly using meth

Our review of meth users’ lost time was perhaps the most shocking. The high associated with meth is the longest of all of the substances that we reviewed and meth users tend to get high most frequently, resulting in a staggering number of hours spent under the influence even in a 5-year period. In the time spent getting high on meth in just a 5-year time period, drug users could have earned their Bachelor’s degree more than 3 times, completed medical school twice, and worked the number of hours required to save 25% of what they’ll need for retirement. The numbers get continually more shocking as the timeframe of drug use grows, culminating at the 25-year timeframe in which meth users could have learned 74 foreign languages, became a lawyer almost 10 times, and trained for and run 518 marathons.

The Time Cost of Opioid Use Over Time

the time cost of regular opioid use

The opioid crisis is widespread in the US, which made it particularly interesting to examine the time cost of using it. The high resulting from opioid use lasts an average of 7 hours and opioid users get high about 7 times per week. As a result, in the time spent using opioids over a 15-year period, drug users could have earned a Bachelor’s degrees more than 3 times, completed the training to fly a plane 129 times, and learned 15 foreign languages.

The Financial Time Cost of Drug Use

the opportunity costs of using drugs

Lastly, we calculated the amount that could have been earned in a minimum wage job over a 5-, 15-, and 25-year time period by users of each drug if they’d worked rather than gotten high. These numbers are especially startling for drugs with long highs like opioids and meth. These figures would be even higher if drug users spent their time earning degrees, furthering their careers, and ultimately growing their monthly earnings.

It’s important to note that these calculations are based on the average user of each of these drugs, so there are individuals out there losing even more of their time and life to drugs.

If you or someone you know are ready to reclaim your time and devote it towards developing your life in positive ways rather than getting high, our experts can help you identify a treatment plan for you.


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