Obituary for a useful data series

Fox Butterfield has the details on the cancellation of the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program in today’s New York Times. Other than paying entirely too much attention to the views of a well-known loudmouth from UCLA, it seems to be a very competent story.

This is bad news for those of us who think about drugs and crime, but there’s also a larger lesson here. The indifference of the Bush Administration to the actual facts about the world is among its most salient characteristics, and the country will be paying for that indifference for a long, long time.

Previous post here.

Update My old friend John Coleman, who used to be the #3 at DEA as Assistant Administrator for Operations, has some thoughts:

The Justice Department has decided to end the ADAM program (see NY Times article below). The importance of ADAM always has been its stark statistics showing the large percentage of criminals high on drugs and alcohol at the time of their crimes. ADAM surveyed arrested felons and then drug-tested them to confirm their statements about drug use. It was all voluntary but showed, nonetheless, extraordinary levels in some cases of drug use by criminals. I recall several years ago reading that more than half the juveniles arrested for homicide in Washington DC tested positive for pot. ADAM was effectively the only data system designed to test felons and have the info confirmed by urine tox screens. Without ADAM, we can only speculate about the connection between drug use and crime. Chalk up a victory for the pro-drugs crowd on this one and shame on Justice and the White House for going along with their eyes and purses closed. Back in the days when I debated druggies on legalization issues, ADAM was the only data source they couldn’t rebut because it was factual and scientific and validated with testing. The best that they could argue was that the screens didn’t tell us how much dope the felons took or when. Recent developments in urine tox screening techniques have overcome some of these earlier limitations and we can now determine ranges for how much and when drugs were taken. But it won’t matter. Good-bye, ADAM.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, my old pal Mark Kleiman sees this the way I do! We are usually on opposite sides of these issues. And, he is right about the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (the former National Household Survey on Drug Use). It’s overloaded with demographic and social info and rests much of its analysis on a factor it defines as “lifetime use,” which means — quite contrary to what it sounds like it should mean — a person who has ever used an illicit drug even once in their lifetime. I wish someone could tell me the significance of this and why it’s worth $50 million a year to know this perfectly worthless “fact.” The pols these days are criticizing the intelligence community for not knowing what was happening in the streets in Iraq and other places in the Middle East prior to last year’s war. They may have a point. Given the billions spent on drug control here in the US, it would make sense that we would be improving, not removing, our essential drug intelligence collection systems, like ADAM, so that we know what’s happening in our streets and we don’t continue to waste money and time measuring the fact that someone out there smoked a joint 25 years ago. Wouldn’t it make more sense to know whether robbers, rapists, and other felons are high on drugs when they commit their crimes against us? I can’t do very much about the guy who smoked a joint 25 years ago and I’m not sure I need to do anything at all about him. But, I can and should do something about crime by drug users or drug use by criminals. Good-bye, ADAM!

John and I agree this is terrible news, but disagree about its political valence. The true hard-core “drug warriors” have always been more concerned with middle-class drug use, and in particular juvenile pot-smoking, than with the heavy chronic use or hard drugs by criminally active uses that constitutes the bulk of the actual drug problem as measured by illicit-market dollars, health damage to users, infectious disease, and crime. That’s what all those “use a drug, sponsor a terrorist” ads were about. Concentrating on the kids is partly a way to pander to the fears of middle-class parents, partly a wedge issue designed to make opponents look “soft on drugs.”

Gathering data showing that the real drug problem doesn’t fit that Bill Bennett image doesn’t help that political program at all. Worse, (as John points out to me in an email I quote with his permission) information about heavy drug use by people who are nominally under criminal justice supervision cries out to have something done about it. (That’s what my pet testing-and-sanctions-for-probationers program is all about.)

So the ADAM data were, as John puts it, like a red dashboard warning light pointing to the need for an expensive repair. It’s cheaper — in the short run — just to take out the warning light.

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:

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