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Of Surveys and Spin

The federal government's annual drug use survey uses fuzzy math to arrive at a suspect conclusion – that only a tiny number of Americans are using illicit drugs.
 
 
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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.

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 of Americans engage in illicit drug use (or virtually any consensual, unregulated illicit activity), SAMHSA's 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," the 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 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. 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. Roughly one out of every two Americans self-identify 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. Whatever figures the agency churns out – accurate or not – their response is unwavering: continue doing more of the same (total federal and state anti-drug spending now totals more than $40 billion per year), only more so.

Regrettably, history shows us that's a strategy doomed to fail, regardless of how one chooses to interpret SAMHSA's patently fuzzy data.

Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.