[Wordless shriek of rage and frustration]

Most of the news in the new household survey on drug abuse is good: cocaine and meth use are down, meth initiations are way down. There’s an uptick in cannabis use, especially among young adults. So why is the official press release headlined “National Survey Shows a Rise in Illicit Drug Use”?

Over the past four years, the number of people self-reporting as methamphetamine users on the big household survey is down by half, and meth initiation rates – a leading indicator, and therefore the one to watch – by 60%. The number of people self-reporting cocaine use is down by a third. Middle-school rates of drinking and smoking are also down, though less dramatically. Initiation to non-medical pain relievers remains high, but off its peak in the early 2000s, reached after a decade that saw initiation rise tenfold.

Oh, yes, and cannnabis use is up some (almost 20% from the 2007 trough, from ), especially among young adults (18-25). Cannabis use among those under 18 is flat. Mean age at first use is up from 17 to 18.4: that’s the direction you want to see it going.

So the on-one-foot summary of the results is “Nothing exciting, but basically good news.”

But if you were really, really, really stupid – or had a job that required you to pretend to be that way – you might just treat all use of illicit drugs as alike and simply count the number of users. In that case, the modest rise in cannabis use would swamp all the other results, because cannabis is by far the mostly widely used illicit drug, and a report mostly full of pretty good news would come out as “National Survey Shows a Rise in Illicit Drug Use,” complete with silly viewing-with-alarm quotes from officials.

(No, dammit, we are not “at a crossroads”! Next year is mostly going to look like this year.)

Even after 30 years in the business, it’s hard to get used to how plain damned dumb the official (and journalistic) discourse on this topic is. The household survey (aptly named NS-DUH, where DUH is pronouned “duhhhhhhhhh”) doesn’t get at what’s really interesting: the number of problem users, and especially criminally-active problem users. But it does contain some useful information. Too bad the people running the show mostly ignore that information and concentrate on fluff.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “[Wordless shriek of rage and frustration]”

  1. Isn’t the meth news, if it’s accurate, dramatically good news? Adult cannabis use up, meh, but meth use down dramatically, YAY! Or is there some reason to disbelieve the meth results?

  2. Years ago, newspapers may have focused on news. Now they focus on sensationalism; whatever will sell papers.

  3. @Fuzzy, Eh, the news has always loved screeching and wailing about drugs. Remember Reefer Madness? In the real world we are moving further toward sanity on marijuana each year, so that’ encouraging. The stuff is, for all practical purposes, just about legal here in NorCal.

  4. “doesn’t get at what’s really interesting: the number of problem users”

    Aren’t all users problem users, godless heathens bent on destroying the fabric of society with an unparalleled lust for entropy? Clearly we need Rick Perry as President, he’ll just execute all the drug users, then life will be nothing but flowers and unicorns.

  5. Personally, what I find interesting is the impact on non-users. I honestly can’t summon up a lot of generic sympathy for people stupid enough to use the drugs. But the way drug policy harms people who aren’t deliberately going out and doing stupid things, ranging from having to present your driver’s license to buy cold medicine that actually WORKS, to cancer patients dying in pain and victims of no-knock searches at the wrong address? That pisses me off royally, because it harms the people who aren’t acting in a self destructive manner.

    To far too great an extent, drug policy doesn’t reduce harm, it just redistributes it to responsible, sensible people.

  6. Mark, it’s nice to hear you rant a bit! Thanks for your take on the survey. Sounds like they’re doubling down on the war against cannabis.

  7. Of course they are, it’s a defense mechanism. Look, how many people have had their lives ruined, even ended, as a result of the war on pot, and drugs generally? Hundreds of thousands? Millions, world wide? So long as the war continues, and is held to be justifiable, it’s the fault of those evul drug dealers. Admit it was a mistake? Wham, it turns out it was the fault of the drug warriors. Just like all those banks maintaining empty, vandalized homes on the books at their pre-collapse book value, because to list them at their real value is to instantly become bankrupt.

    Only the drug warriors would be admitting moral bankruptcy if they didn’t keep doubling down. And the deeper they dig their hole, the more resistant they’ll be to admitting it is a hole.

  8. The reason to be skeptical of the results is that the survey misses most of the heavy users. Still, there’s no good reason to doubt the trend.

  9. Hilzoy, meth is a really nasty drug. The more people see what it does to its current users, they less they want to use it themselves. And for once, the “prevention” (i.e., propaganda) effort has some fairly effective themes.

  10. Yeah, propaganda works better when it’s got some truth in it. Might work even better if people didn’t automatically tend to discount anything the government says about drugs, but that’s the price of being willing to lie about them.

  11. Brett, great to have you back!
    Somebody else seems to have been posting trolling in your name the last few days.

  12. Hello all. This is my first post here.

    I couldn’t agree more with Mark’s analysis (ok, rant). It’s very frustrating that these people continue to receive paychecks. I recently picked up “Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control” (Mark’s 1989 book). Unfortunately, his words of wisdom seem to be lost on those who make policy.

    I’m curious: is there any merit to Kerlikowske’s assertion that the recent rise is attributable to states’ medical cannabis laws? Have the use rates risen in California and Colorado (and the other 14 medical states) at a higher rate than in non-medical states? If so is this only a recent trend, or can it be traced back to the origin of medical cannabis (eg, 1996 in California)?

  13. An the cross-post at The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen left in everything of Mark’s except for the title, changed to something bland and forgettable. We at the RBC stay loyal to the primal scream from our orgone soapbox!

  14. Brett, when you say “I honestly can’t summon up a lot of generic sympathy for people stupid enough to use the drugs.” you show your complete lack of empathy.
    1) Families of those addicted to drugs suffer.
    2) Folks are stupid, but don’t deserve to suffer indefinitely from a stupid thing they did when younger.
    3) Some folks are likely genetically susceptible to addiction. No sympathy for them?
    4) oy, get a soul please.

  15. 1. Didn’t say I had no sympathy for their families.
    2. If you don’t deserve the foreseeable consequences of your own actions, what could you possibly deserve? What are you arguing, that nobody deserves anything at all?
    3. Even the most susceptible don’t get addicted if they don’t try the drugs in the first place, and who isn’t adequately informed that trying them is a bad idea?
    4. How can I get something I’ve got no reason to suppose exists?

    Now, I will gladly admit that it would be nice of me to have a bit more sympathy for the stupidly self-destructive. Would you care to admit that, however much sympathy we should have for them, we should have far more sympathy for the rationally prudent, harmed despite their precautions, rather than because of their own stupidity?

    That’s my point: If drug policy actually reduced harm to drug users, without harming non-users, and was voluntary, who’d object to it? My problem with it is that it doesn’t reduce harm. It merely redistributes harm, away from those whose actions brought it on, to those who were acting with prudent self-restraint.

    I don’t have a lot of tolerance for seeing that done.

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