Federal Drug Use Surveys and Fuzzy Math

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Here's
the good news. Only a tiny percentage of Americans indulge in the
use of illicit, so called "hard" drugs like heroin and
cocaine, according to annual survey data released this month by
the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Here's
the bad news. The government's figures are not to be taken seriously.

Nor
should they be.

In
2003, "an estimated 2.3 million (1.0 percent of the US population
aged 12 or older) were current cocaine users, 604,000 of whom used
crack," SAMHSA reported in its latest National Survey on Drug
Use and Health. In addition, "Hallucinogens were used by 1.0
millions persons, and there were an estimated 119,000 current heroin
users." Responding to the survey, U.S. Health and Human Services
Secretary Tommy G. Thompson called the data "encouraging."

A
more appropriate response might have been: "Balderdash!"

While
it's virtually impossible to accurately estimate what percentage
Americans engage in illicit drug use (or virtually any consensual,
unregulated illicit activity), SAMHSA's above mentioned numbers
are particularly suspect. For starters, there's the matter of the
survey's methodology.

"Conducted
by the Federal Government since 1971, the survey collects data by
administering questionnaires to a representative sample of the population
through face-to-face interviews at their places of residence,"
authors explain.

Disregarding
that many of America's more egregious drug users do not possess
consistent, long-term "places of residence" (some are
homeless or enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs, and
many are incarcerated on drug-related or other criminal charges)
and, thus, are never polled by SAMHSA's researchers, the larger
problem still remains. How likely is it that the average American
drug consumer is going to truthfully admit to a representative of
the federal government – one who is standing in their living room,
no less – that they engage in illicit activity punishable by a lengthy
prison term? Judging by the fact that of the 130,605 addresses screened
by SAMHSA, more than half refused to answer their questions, the
answer is: not likely.

Additionally,
among those who did respond, it's arguable that a sizable percentage
significantly underreported their illicit drug use. In fact, it
would be hard to believe that they wouldn't. According to a White
House briefing paper analyzing SAMHSA's figures regarding Americans
alcohol and tobacco use, respondents have historically underreported
their usage of these two legal substances by as much as 30 to 50
percent. (Revenues from alcohol and tobacco taxes allow researchers
to cross check respondents admitted usage patterns with actual annual
consumption rates; naturally, the prohibited status of controlled
substances prevents researchers from conducting a similar comparative
analysis on illicit drugs.) Based on this fact, one can only assume
that respondents underreport their illicit drug consumption by similar
or even greater margins.

Annual
arrest figures from the FBI cast further doubt on the Feds' dubious
figures. For example, of the nearly 1.6 million drug abuse violations
reported annually, roughly 725,000 are for heroin and cocaine violations.
(Federal statistics lump the two drugs together.) Put another way,
if one is to accept SAMHSA's survey data at face value, then approximately
one-third of the nation's total population of cocaine users and
perhaps even a greater percentage of America's heroin users have
been arrested within the past year, and virtually every US cocaine
and heroin user could theoretically be behind bars by 2005. Given
that Americans' illicit drug use has continued virtually unabated
despite decades of ever-increasing anti-drug enforcement and prosecutions
(more than 4.5 million Americans have been arrested for drug-related
charges since 2000 and approximately 450,000 are now incarcerated
on drug-related charges) one would have to assume that there exists
a far larger pool of Americans engaging in the use of these substances
than SAMHSA would like to admit.

Interestingly,
the lone figured touted by SAMHSA that appears to be based somewhat
in reality is that 97 million Americans – " more
than 40 percent of the US population age 12 or older – "
have used marijuana during their lifetimes. (SAMHSA estimates the
number of current marijuana users to be 14.6 million – a figure that
appears low, but not absurdly low when checked against annual marijuana
arrest data and interdiction data.) Perhaps this is because most
respondents, like many politicians, have fewer misgivings about
admitting to past transgressions than they do divulging recent or
current behavior. Or perhaps it's because marijuana consumption – particularly
past use of the drug – carries far less of a social stigma than the
use of other illicit substances.

Whatever
the case, it is apparent that Americans clearly delineate between
the use of marijuana and the use of more dangerous substances like
cocaine and heroin, with roughly one out of every two Americans
self-identifying as having used the former (so much for any "deterrent
effect" of prohibition) versus only a fraction of the population – though
hardly as small a percentage as SAMHSA estimates – ever likely having
used the latter.

Predictably,
federal officials remain unwilling to either cast criticism or objectively
interpret the latest round of SAMHSA numbers. (For instance, what
sense, if any, is there in selectively enforcing a law that criminalizes
behavior engaged in by nearly one half of the American public?)
Whatever figures the agency churns out – accurate or not – their response
is unwavering: continuing doing more of the same (total federal
and state anti-drug spending now totals more than $40 billion per
year), only more so. Regrettably, that's a strategy that history
has repeatedly shown to be doomed to fail, regardless of how one
chooses to interpret SAMHSA's patently fuzzy data.

September
22, 2004

Paul Armentano [send him mail]
is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
in Washington, DC.

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