What If Drug Use Data Came Out and No One Talked About Them?


The latest results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health were released today, but it was easy not to notice. Drug warriors traditionally use the government's survey data to trumpet their successes and/or emphasize the need for continued vigilance (and funding). But in a break from the usual practice, it seems that neither the Office of National Drug Control Policy nor the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has issued a press release about the new results. The only news story I can find about the latest numbers is this Dow Jones report, which emphasizes a small decline in "the number of Americans abusing prescription drugs," which fell by about 1 million, or 6 percent, between 2007 and 2008. The story adds that "the percentage of people using illegal drugs held steady over the same time frame."

Dow Jones asked Robert Denniston, director of the ONDCP's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, about the decline in nonmedical use of prescription drugs. Denniston, a Bush administration holdover, warned that it's hard to "unravel all the multiple factors" that contribute to ups and downs in drug use but nevertheless claimed "a push by the federal government and a host of anti-drug organizations and local communities to alert parents about the potential perils of giving kids easy access to prescription drugs is having an impact." In particular, he cited this ONDCP-sponsored Super Bowl ad. Far be it from me to rain on the ONDCP's Super Bowl parade, but how can an ad aimed at convincing parents to keep an eye on the contents of their medicine cabinets account for a decline in nonmedical use of prescription drugs that occurred among adults as well as teenagers?

Aside from Denniston's comments, which apparently were solicited by Dow Jones, the Obama administration does not seem to be talking about the NSDUH results. I take its silence on this subject, like the president's omission of the obligatory stay-off-drugs message from Tuesday's speech to high school students, as a positive sign. By contrast, the Bush administration rarely, if ever, passed up an opportunity to fan the flames of anti-drug hysteria. The Marijuana Policy Project's Bruce Mirken suggests why former ONDCP head John Walters, who has continued to push hardline drug policies since leaving office, is not likely to call attention to the new NSDUH data either: They show marijuana use, Walters' main target, is essentially unchanged from 2002, the second year of the Bush administration and the first year of the survey (data from its predecessor, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, are not directly comparable, but if anything suggest an increase in pot smoking during Walters' tenure).