The War on Drugs Didn't Work, Eh?
July 21, 2008
If you are a reader of my posts on drug abuse science you will have noticed that it rarely takes long for a commenter or three to opine some version of “The (US) War on Drugs is a complete and utter failure”. Similarly, while Big Eddie mostly comments on the liberty aspects (rather than the effectiveness) of the WoD himself, a commenter to his posts will usually weigh in, commenting to a similar effect.
Now I’m open to all the arguments about personal liberty trade offs, economic costs, sentencing disparities, violations of other sovereign nations and the like. Nevertheless, I’m most interested in the fundamental question of whether the War on Drugs worked. That is, to reduce drug use in the US. For those who believe it has not worked, I have a few figures I would like explained to me.
I’m following up a story I started in a prior post by putting up the long term trends for cocaine use in the US. These data are from the 2006 Volume II monograph which focuses on the 18 yr old and older populations. As you will recall my hypothesis was / is that the Len Bias fatality had a dramatic effect on cocaine use. I still think this is the case and that this explains much of the timing of a reduction in cocaine prevalence observed consistently from the 18 yr old to 45+ age groups. However Len Bias’s death was not an exclusive effect and must be considered in the context of changes in other drug use patterns. That context is something I want to delve into just a little bit.
As always, I depend on the data from the Monitoring the Future survey (www.monitoringthefuture.org) and I am pulling the figures from the 2006 Volume I monograph which focuses on the 8th, 10th and 12th grade populations in contrast to the older age cohorts outlined in the first graph.
First up are the annual prevalence rates for powder cocaine, which I provide for reference to the previous graph for the older age ranges. I apologize for the blurry figures but my imaging skills are not up to any better- luckily, these reports are freely available on the MtF website. (I also encourage you to get the reports yourself because there are slight changes in the questions asked in some cases- if you see a discontinuity in the longitudinal data this is probably why.) The longest term trends are available for 12th graders, additional grades were added into the survey in the early 1990’s. Prevalence of cocaine was reasonably steady in the 1979-1986 interval and it is stunningly apparent that cocaine became less popular with 12th graders after 1986 . It is also clear that it took about 5 additional years for prevalence to drop to the most recent nadir. So it wasn’t all about Len Bias (he died of cocaine-related cardiac complications on June 19, 1986).
So, if it isn’t all about Len Bias, perhaps we should see similar effects on population prevalence of other illicit drugs?
Marijuana and Amphetamine
It seems reasonable to turn our analysis to two perennial high-prevalence drugs for high school populations; marijuana (duh!) and the amphetamines. (In MtF parlance, the amphetamine class is for tablet or other prescription preparations after 1982.) In this case, the prevalences were at peak in the late 1970s and started to decline in the very early 1980s. Interestingly, there is no evidence of a change in the established trends from 1986-1987 as is observed for powder cocaine; I think this supports the Len Bias hypothesis. Nevertheless we can also see this as additional evidence for something else driving drug use downward.
This brings us to what are illicit drugs for most of these populations but, of course, licit drugs for individuals who have reached the legal age; 21 (alcohol) or 18 (cigarettes; this may be a substantial fraction of 12th graders). In theory, we might use these data to try to dissociate the anti-drug messaging from the drug interdiction / legal penalties side of the equation. Not perfect, but at least a hint.
The trends for annual prevalence of alcohol were very stable from 1978-1988 whereupon a decline was observed (questions were altered in 1993, making further comparison tricky). The trends for 5-drinks-in-a-row (currently the definition of a “binge”) in the past two week interval were very stable from 1978-1983 and thereafter exhibited a slow decline until the early 1990s. Very reminiscent of the above mentioned drugs.
In this case, please note that we’ve shifted to 30-day prevalence rates (any, daily); obviously this is frustrating for direct comparison but this is what they provide in the monographs. Unfortunately the more recent monographs (it is currently on a reliable annual update schedule with available pdfs, the older ones are not available) seem to only start with the 1986 data in the Tables so one is left with their figures for the earlier part of the trends. With that caveat, we can see that cigarette prevalence in the high school population was reasonably stable during the interval in which the prevalence rates for the illicit-for-all drugs mentioned above were in decline.
So Did the War on Drugs Work or Not?
I do think the jury is still out on this one and the problem of shifting definitions about goals and successes is quite difficult. I feel confident the comments will stray afield a bit and explore some of these issues. However, as I intimated at the outset,
for those of you who insist vociferously that the War on Drugs (considered inclusively with the Just Say No, D.A.R.E, main-stream media reporting, and all that stuff that is frequently rolled into a whole by the legalization crowd) is an abject failure…
for those of you who insist vociferously that you cannot tell teenagers anything about the dangers of recreational drugs and expect them to listen to you…
I would like these data explained to me.
Update 7/23/08: Followup post from Scott Morgan at StoptheDrugWar.org