Surveys Shed Light on Inconsistencies of Drug War

Jennifer Gauck
September 1, 1997

Proponents from the prohibition side of the drug war added fuel to the statistical fire when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released their annual. "National Household Survey on Drug Abuse" just days before the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) dropped their proverbial bomb entitled, "Substance Abuse and the American Adolescent." Both surveys emphasized a commitment to continued anti-drug rhetoric in the classrooms and in the media.

The Household Survey found a decline in youth drug use, while over-all drug use levels remained constant. The rate of teenage use for all illegal drugs dropped from 10.9 percent in 1995 to 9.0 percent in 1996. Drug "czar" Barry McCaffrey expressed concern over a statistically insignificant increase in first-time cocaine and heroin users, as well as the decline in perceived risk associated with marijuana use.

"Overall drug use in America has fallen by half in 15 years. However, drugs are a sustained threat to our young people," McCaffrey said in a HHS press release.

The CASA survey expressed similar sentiments of impending doom concerning drug use. According to its study, the percentage of 12-year-olds who know someone who has used acid, cocaine or heroin increased by 122 percent from 1996 to 1997. While CASA admits that alcohol remains the No. 1 drug of choice among teenagers, Joseph Califano, its president, continued to advocate his "gateway drug" theory: that 12- to 17-year-olds who drank and smoked cigarettes and pot were 17 times more likely to use acid, coke or heroin. CASA concurred with HHS on the fact that fewer adolescents believe that drug use, especially marijuana use, is inherently dangerous.

Both surveys have been questioned for their methods and statistical data. The Household Survey often overestimates the number of heroin and cocaine users, according to the General Accounting Office. The Household Survey has also proven erroneous when it comes to legal drugs like alcohol. According the Office of National Drug Control Policy White Paper from 1994, the Household Survey reported that Americans consume 50 billion drinks per year but revenues from alcohol taxes indicate national consumption closer to 100 billion drinks. If this kind of significant error can occur when tracking legal drugs, it seems likely that statistics from the black market would be equally, if not more inaccurate.

CASA's statistics raise a few eye-brows as wet. Its study only surveyed 15 teens between the ages of 12 and 17. This is hardly as comprehensive a sample as, say, the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future survey, which queried over 40,000 adolescents for their data. Another inconsistency is the interpretation of the data. CASA states with alarm that the number of 12-year-olds who know someone who has done acid, coke or heroin has increased by 122 percent in the past year. Yet how many of those "someones" are older siblings or parents who spoke about their own experimentation?

Other controversial conclusions plagued the CASA report. Califano repeatedly emphasized that "marijuana is a dangerous drug" because "it's more potent than it was in the '60s." Yet, according to the government funded Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, which has been monitoring potency levels in marijuana since the mid-'70s, the potency is essentially the "same as it was in the 70s.

"The latest round of gateway drug theories came directly from Califano's mouth," Paul Armentano, director of publications at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said. "In the 1940s, when heroin was a problem, marijuana use was seen as a 'stepping stone,' but the LaGuardia Report of 1944 found no relation among New York City heroin users, which dispelled the 'gate-way' theory. There's not a single scientific body that would support it. CASA looked at the Household Survey and interpreted figures for its use. In their infinite wisdom, [CASA] did the math the other way."

Indeed, even the National Institute on Drug Abuse concedes that "most marijuana users do not go on to use other illegal drugs," despite Califano's claim that "new CASA analysis supports the gateway drug theory."

It's wryly ironic, then, that CASA's ultimate conclusion is that the nation commit "$1 billion a year to research on addiction and greatly step up biomedical and' social research on adolescence." Apparently, Califano can't get enough money to support his easily debunked theory, despite a $2 million, 2-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Gauck, Jennifer. "Surveys Shed Light on Inconsistencies of Drug War." Youth Today, Sept/Oct 1997, p. 27.

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