Do Cocaine Trends Show U.S. Policies Are Better Than Europe's?


In a letter to The New York Times, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske claims that "since 2007, cocaine use has decreased sharply in the United States, while in Europe it has risen." But the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows past-year cocaine use declining only slightly between 2007 and 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available), from 2.3 percent to 2.1 percent. Similarly, past-month cocaine use fell from 0.8 percent to 0.7 percent. Neither change was statistically signficant, let alone "sharp." The Monitoring the Future Study does show statistically signficant drops in cocaine use among high school seniors between 2007 and 2009: Past-year use (PDF) fell from 5.2 percent to 3.4 percent, while past-month use (PDF) fell from 2 percent to 1.3 percent.

In addition to exaggerating the downward trend in the U.S., which is statistically significant only among teenagers, Kerlikowske misleadingly implies that the U.S. approach to drugs is demonstrably superior to Europe's. First, there is a wide variety of European approaches, ranging from Swedish-style strictness to Portugese decriminalization. Second, the contrast in cocaine trends is not as clear as Kerlikowske suggests: According to data collected by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, cocaine use rose in some European countries between 2007 and 2008 while falling in others. Third, trends in use are not necessarily related to drug policy. Does the U.K.'s sharp decline in cocaine use between 2007 and 2008 show the government suddenly did something right after years of rising cocaine consumption, or are other forces at work? For what it's worth, cocaine use in the United States remains almost twice as high as the European average, although American policies are generally stricter. Past-year use in both Portugal and the Netherlands (which is also known for its relatively tolerant drug policies) is less than one-third the U.S. rate.