As the National Academy of Sciences pointed out a couple of years ago, one fundamental problem with our approach to drug abuse is that we don’t know nearly as much as we need to know about what’s going on. And Peter Reuter has put his finger on one of the causes of that ignorance: While the overwhelming bulk of the activity in drug abuse control consists of law enforcement, almost all of the reasearch money comes from the health side.
The two big national surveys on drug abuse — what used to be called the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) and is now called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which I suppose must be the NS-Duh, and the Monitoring the Future survey of high-school students — between them cost more than $100 million per year. They give us an excellent picture of casual, non-problem drug use and virtually no usuable data about the actual drug problem.
The Household Survey, for example, can be used to estimate the quantity of cocaine consumed each year, and the answer comes back somewhere between 25 and 30 metric tons. The actual quantity is about 270 tons. So the Household Survey misses about 90% of the action. (It also finds, absurdly, that there are fewer than half a million more-than-weekly cocaine users, and that fewer than 10% of them have ever been arrested.)
That’s no surprise, once you think about it. We know that 80% of the quantity consumed is used by 20% of the users. And those heavy users are disproportionately drawn from the non-household population (homeless or institutionalized) or from the 20% of the people on the Household Survey target list who either can’t be found or refuse to answer.
So where can we find the heavy users? Why, in the jails, of course. About 75% of heavy cocaine users get arrested in the course of any given year, either for drug possession or (even more frequently) for crimes committed in order to get money to buy cocaine: theft, dealing, and prostitution. The number of arrestee heavy users is about three times the number of non-arrestee heavy users.
We know that due to a data collection program once called Drug Use Forecasting (DUF) and now called Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM). The National Institute of Justice calls ADAM the centerpiece of its drugs and crime research program. It costs a few percent of what the two big data-collection programs cost, which makes it by two orders of magnitude the most cost-effective data collection program in the entire world of drug abuse.
But that money comes out of the tiny budget of the National Institute of Justice rather than the huge budget of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and NIJ’s budget is being squeezed.
So today, the day after the President’s State of the Union Address proposed spending $23 million a year on drug-testing programs in schools (an approach which has never been demonstrated to have any useful effect) the National Institute of Justice issued a stop-work order shutting down the ADAM program.
This step was taken without any consultation with any of the non-government experts on drug abuse, or I would surely have heard about it before Fox Butterfield of the New York Times called today to tell me that the announcement was on the NIJ website and ask me what I thought about it.
I suppose if you’re running an administration where facts are never allowed to interefere with decisions, it’s not necessary to gather any actual data.
Update A reader tells me that there is a backstory here. Apparently the ADAM contract was recently rebid and taken by firm that grossly lowballed its bid to undercut the incumbent, and then tried to push its price back up after the award. (There are several tricks an unscrupulous contractor can use, all of which more or less boil down to pretending that the activities promised in the bid were less than what actually needs to be done, and insisting that the agency issue “change orders” — triggering additional payments — to get to a reasonable performance level. “Oh, you didn’t want your reports printed on toilet paper? That will be extra, then.”
Apparently, the NIJ brass decided to strike back by cancelling the contract entirely.
This does indeed make the story more comprensible, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that it’s inexcusable. Apparently the decision was made over the protest of the drug czar’s office, which gives you some idea how weak that operation now is.
Second update Wrong! Everything in the update above is nonsense. Not sure what the crossed wire was with my source, but NORC, which has an impeccable record of competence and integrity, has had the big ADAM contract for several years now. So whether what I heard was NIJ spin or Abt spin (Abt having beeen the previous contractor) or merely random hot air, it certainly wasn’t the case.
Sorry to be the source of disinformation. I wish I could say “Won’t happen again,” but of course it will. All I can say is that the next time it happens I’ll let you know as soon as I do.