Drug Czar's Office Explains Why It Omitted Alcohol Data From Drug and Crime Report


U.S. Embassy of Afghanistan

In response to two blog posts and several Tweets asking why a recent report on the "link" between crime and drugs omitted data regarding alcohol consumption, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy tonight explained its decision to withhold said data, why it feels the data wasn't significant enough to include, and where interested parties can find said data in the raw (short answer: at the moment, they actually can't).

Background: I first queried ONDCP Communications Director Rafael Lemaitre on Friday after I noticed that a report the ONDCP released on Thursday–the 2012 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report–included a question about alcohol use, but no data reflecting the answers. Answers to questions about illicit drug consumption, meanwhile, were dutifully reflected in tables. Lemaitre responded by accusing me of peddling a conspiracy theory. In response, I sent him a screenshot from the methodology section of the report with the germane question about alcohol circled in red. He then tried to tell me that the data wasn't relevant, and when I insisted on seeing it regardless, he ignored me. That was Friday. Today, I wrote a follow-up. Tonight, Lemaitre published a response on the ONDCP blog:

Last week, we released the 2012 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report (ADAM II), a long running study that reveals the percentage of arrestees in certain U.S. cities/counties testing positive for at least one illegal drug at the time of arrest….Typically, however, the annual ADAM report does not include findings about alcohol use. Why? Here are three reasons:

1. Simply put, the nexus between alcohol use and crime is already well documented….Moreover, there are already many other surveys that compare rates of legal drug use to illegal drug use….What's harder to investigate, however, are emerging trends in illegal drug use – which fluctuate and shift more widely compared to alcohol—at the local level, and among a highly transient, often homeless criminal justice population.

2. The ADAM II study doesn't test arrestees for alcohol in the first place. One of the primary characteristics that make the ADAM II survey unique is that it collects bioassay data (urinalysis) from arrestees within 48 hours of arrest (as opposed to larger surveys such as NSDUH that rely solely on a questionnaire). Since ADAM II only tests for certain illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines/methamphetamine, Darvon, PCP, benzodiazepines, methadone, and barbiturates), there are no data on positive alcohol results to report in the study.

As part of the data collection process, some questions are asked about alcohol use, but since the focus of the annual report is on the drug test results, the findings from the alcohol questions are not included in the report. However, in keeping with the scientific principles of transparency and accessibility and Administration policy, ONDCP makes the complete ADAM II raw data file available to researchers so they can conduct their own analyses. These raw data are available for previous years of ADAM data collection through the University of Michigan's Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), a data warehouse used by many Federal agencies to make their data available to the research community. (Users must first register with the ICPSR and sign a user's agreement, and more recent years data will be available there soon).

3. The primary focus of ONDCP is to reduce illegal drug use and its consequences. A component of the Executive Office of the President, ONDCP was created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (you can read our Congressional authorization here). Accordingly, ONDCP's primary mission has focused on efforts to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences.

Lemaitre continues to insist that because researchers did not test arrestee urine for alcohol, the number of arrestees who had five drinks or more in a sitting in the previous three, seven, and 30 days, as well as the last 12 months, is irrelevant. If that's the case, why did the firm the ONDCP contract with ask that question? 

The truth is that despite its narrow mandate, the ONDCP talks about alcohol quite a bit. On the same ONDCP blog where Lemaitre responded to my questions, there's a post instructing people to provide non-alcoholic drinks to guests at their Christmas parties; meanwhile, searching the White House site for alcohol and the ONDCP returns more than 16,000 results.

The ONDCP is more than happy to talk about booze when it's talking about recovery and treatment; but including data about alcohol consumption–data the ONDCP requested–in a report linking illicit drug use to crime would have been counter-productive.

And don't get me started on the fact that to get said data, you have to go to a third party, where you can only download raw data from as recently as 2010.