Has MDMA use peaked?

The annual statistics on high-school drug use from the Monitoring the Future survey get more attention (within the little world of drug policy) than they probably deserve. The survey tells us much more about casual drug use than it does about problem drug use. But this year’s numbers are not without interest. Paul Fishbein provides a good summary, with links.

The new results largely confirm the downtrend in drug use of all kinds among eighth-graders; from the peak in 1996, most of the numbers are halfway or more than halfway back to the low point in 1991. The tenth-grade and twelfth-grade numbers are coming down more slowly.

More interestingly, the new results seem to show a break in trend for what had been the fastest-growing drug, MDMA (“ecstasy”). The other big drug survey, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), shows a rapidly rising trend in MDMA “initiation” (i.e, first use) through 2001, and lots of us thought that MDMA was on track to become the second-most-widely-used illegal drug, after cannabis. That could still happen, but the new figures lengthen the odds.

As Paul points out, there is a correlation between self-reported risk perceptions about particular drugs and disapproval about their use and self-reported use of those drugs. One theory to account for this is that perceived risk and disapproval prevent initiation. If that’s true, the current strategy of putting out scary stories about whatever drug is currently coming into fashion is likely to be effective in reducing its spread.

Another theory that covers the same facts is that the more students think their peers regard using a drug as risky and bad, the less likely they are to say they use it when filling out a survey form in a classroom with their classmates present, whether they actually use it or not. (We know that such response bias is a problem, since the classroom numbers from Monitoring the Future are always much higher than the numbers collected from the same age range as part of the NHSDA, where the survey is conducted in the home with the parents present.) Insofar as that theory is right, the anti-drug ads may influence reported behavior more than actual behavior. (Astonishingly, despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on the two surveys, neither does a confirmation subsample using toxicology, in order to measure the gap between what’s said and what’s done.)

I believe that attitudes and risk perceptions influence both actual behavior and the veracity of self-report, so that a decline in self-reforted use accompanying a rise in perceived disapproval is likley to be real, but probably smaller than it appears.

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