5 Drug Scares vs. Reality

The disconnect between drug use and public alarm about it


Last year I noted the disconnect between rising public alarm about methamphetamine and falling rates of use. By 2005, when Newsweek identified "The Meth Epidemic" as "America's New Drug Crisis" in a sensational cover story, illicit methamphetamine use had been declining for years. A new report on data from the government-sponsored Monitoring the Future (MTF) Study, which surveys eighth-graders, 10th-graders, 12th-graders, college students, and young adults, makes a similar point:

Methamphetamine questions were introduced in 1999 because of rising concern about use of this drug; but a decline in use has been observed among all five populations in the years since then, through about 2012. In 2014 annual use in all five populations was very low—particularly among college students (0.1%). These substantial declines occurred during a period in which there were many stories in the media suggesting that methamphetamine use was a growing problem—an example of the importance of having accurate epidemiological data available against which to test conventional wisdom.

That is not the only way in which MTF data contradict, or at least complicate, the warnings of drug warriors and their flacks in the press. Here are a few more examples that struck me while reading the report.

Bath Salt Blowout

A few years ago, MTF started asking about the synthetic cathinones sold as "bath salts," which supposedly were catching on all over the country, driving users to mutilate themselvescommit suicide, and eat the faces of innocent bystanders. Since the question about "bath salts" was added in 2012, use rates have been "very low" and mostly declining. Between 2012 and 2014, the rate of past-year use fell from 0.8 percent to 0.5 percent among eighth-graders, from 1.3 percent to 0.9 percent among 12th-graders, from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent among college students, and from 0.5 percent to 0.4 percent among young adults (ages 19 to 28). Past-year use rose slightly among 10th-graders between 2012 and 2014, from 0.6 percent 0.9 percent, a difference that was not statistically significant.

Salvia Slide

Six years ago in Reason, I described the proliferation of state bans on Salvia divinorum, a psychedelic herb that had somehow escaped prohibitionists' attention since the 1930s, when Western anthropologists started describing its ritual use in Mexico, which goes back hundreds of years. Alarmed by their discovery of a psychoactive plant whose existence they had unknowingly tolerated, state legislators rushed to correct their oversight, fearful that it "could become the next marijuana," as the Associated Press put it.

Salvia did not quite take off the way the alarmists predicted. In 2009, when MTF first asked about the drug, 3.5 percent of young adults reported using it in the previous year. Last year the rate was 1.2 percent. Similarly, past-year salvia use by 12th-graders fell from 5.7 percent in 2009 to 1.8 percent in 2014. By comparison, 32 percent of young adults and 35 percent of high school seniors used marijuana that year.

Something About Molly

MDMA, a.k.a. Ecstasy or (more recently) Molly, is considerably more popular than salvia. According to the MTF data, it was used by 3.6 percent of 12th-graders, 5 percent of college students, and 4.8 percent of young adults last year. But those rates are much lower than the peaks seen in 2001, when 9.2 percent of both 12th-graders and college students, along with 7.5 percent of young adults, admitted using MDMA.

It looks like peak MDMA use came a few years before peak MDMA hysteria, as embodied in Joe Biden's Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003, which targeted raves and other events where use of the drug was common. By the time Biden's bill passed, past-year use by 12th-graders and college students had fallen from peak levels by more than 50 percent, while past-year use by young adults had fallen by 40 percent.

Heroin Hype

Public alarm about heroin also seems only loosely related to trends in use. Contrary to the impression you might get from all the talk of a "heroin epidemic," MTF data indicate that use of the drug by young people has not risen in recent years.

After falling by 50 percent between 1975 and 1979, the prevalence of past-year heroin use among 12th-graders remained stable at 0.5 percent or so until 1995, when it doubled. The rate peaked at 1.5 percent in 2000. Last year it was 0.6 percent. 

Trends were similar for the other age groups. "After the period 1999 to 2001," says the MTF report, "heroin use fell back to lower levels than were observed in the mid- to late-1990s….All age groups except for the young adults had annual levels of heroin use in 2014 that were well below recent peaks (by roughly one half to two thirds). Young adults have remained at peak levels (0.4–0.6% in 2008–2014)."

Recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which covers Americans 12 and older, show a gradual increase in the number of past-year heroin users, from 373,000 in 2007 to 681,000 in 2013. "Heroin use remains uncommon in the United States," says the NSDUH report, although "the percentage of people using heroin is higher in 2013 than it was a decade ago." Data for last year are not available yet.

By contrast, public concern about a "heroin epidemic," as measured by the use of that phrase in newspaper and wire service articles collected by Nexis, has risen precipitously. Between 2011 and 2013, when the number of past-year users indicated by NSDUH data rose by about 10 percent, the number of "heroin epidemic" mentions rose by almost 700 percent, from 82 to 633. Last year press references to a "heroin epidemic" skyrocketed to more than 3,000, driven largely by a single event: the heroin-related death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

MTF and NSDUH probably miss a substantial number of heavy users, and the number of overdose deaths involving heroin did rise from 4,397 in 2011 to 8,257 in 2013. But even that increase pales beside the explosion in press coverage.

Data Delay

As these examples (and others) suggest, the relationship between reality and public pronouncements about drugs can be tenuous. Supposedly scary new intoxicants may never attract much of a following, while the ebb and flow in use of more familiar substances may correspond only roughly, if at all, to the level of political panic about them. The problem is that data showing the fizzling of fads or putting into perspective the drug scare du jour usually are not available in the heat of the moment, when policy tends to be made.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

NEXT: Matt Welch Explains Why Hillary Clinton is a Brazen Liar

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Laugh all you want about the bath salts scare, but you can mark my words: it's being used by the government or possibly a biotech corporation to cover-up either deliberate or accidental exposure by the general public to experiments involving the undead.

      1. Hard to tell...

    1. a biotech corporation

      We all know you're talking about Umbrella.

  2. Fist, it has to be the government; they're always in dire need of BRAIIINS!

    1. Did you hear about the recent zombie outbreak? It happened inside the Washington D.C. beltway and never got any further. They all starved.

  3. 1. The Democratic Party published well-founded fears of a heroin epidemic in its 1924 platform. The Republican Party responded by endorsing the continuation of alcohol prohibition in its 1928 platform, increasing beer penalties and using the tax law as a dry bludgeon.
    2. The Democratic Party endorsed the "liberal" repeal of national prohibition in its 1932 platform, after several states had already repealed their dry laws. None of the 1932 "socialist" platforms endorsed repeal of prohibition, but the "liberal" platform did. The Republican party responded by attempting to preserve National Prohibition and increase exports of prohibition laws in 1932. See "SEES SUPPORT FOR LIBERALS", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 23, 1932
    3. Both major parties subsequently endorsed prohibition of other substances, most of them less harmful than beer or liquor and all of them preferable to heroin even in double-blind tests. Now is a good time for the Libertarian Party to declare for the repeal of "nonaddictive" drugs in its 2016 platform.

  4. "As these examples (and others) suggest, the relationship between reality and public pronouncements about drugs can be tenuous."

    "Tenous", my butt.

    They are bald-faced lies/fabrications put out to further the ongoing political agenda [i.e.more control, more money for zombie insiders, more wars for and on outsider zombies etc.].

    Dream on, or not? As always, your choice dear reader. 🙂

    Regards, onebornfree.
    Personal Freedom Consulting

  5. Get all of that crap out of our schools and away from our kids. If addiction can happen to Horshack, it can happen to any of us.

    1. If becoming a douchebag Scientologist can happen to Vinnie Barbarino, it can happen to any of us!

    2. Note to non-legal readers: US federal courts today use a nonmedical definition of addiction that applies equally to opium, Twinkies, diethylmorphine, Cheetos, Skittles, beer, Chocolate milk and barbiturates. When someone belches out an appeal to "addiction," ask for the definition.

      1. And some say 'we're addicted to gasoline', too...

        When I hear that, I just suggest that the person go to the Main Circuit Breaker in their home or apartment and snap it to the "off" position... THEN see who's addicted to What...

        Fucking morons... and another reason to look askance at Joe Biden, if anyone noticed...

  6. All the junkies I have known were sad, wasted people. That said, the anti-drug rhetoric that I have seen (and I've been paying some degree of attention since about 1970) is shot through with lies, exaggerations, and hysteria. The Drug war is a nasty farce.

  7. Somebody named Samuel Harden Church wrote "The Liberal Party in America" in late 1931 and included a platform demanding repeal of prohibition (we're talking beer, wine, etc...) and repeal of Blue Laws (being caught watching a dance of ball game netted a fine of about a half-ounce of gold). The Democratic party had no choice but to add a repeal plank in order for its politicians to get their hands on some of that honest graft and stop the economic collapse caused by the income tax once prohibition as a tax loophole was closed under Herb Hoover. The LP went through similar travails and in the 1970s managed to compel the repeal of laws forbidding the sale of things like nails or going to work on Sundays. Few realize that in 1931 women were manhandled and thrown in jail for even talking about birth control, and cops shot people suspected of handling beer--thanks to the Republican Party.

  8. Scary drug stats makes great fodder for politicians. It also helps garner support for prohibition. If we really wanted to "fix" the drug problem, we could have done so years ago. Legalize everything and the problem goes away. Not the drug use, but all the law enforcement, prison building, property seizures, etc. etc. that go with it. Like so many other things, it's all about the money.

  9. I hate to rain on a legalization parade, but heroin, opium and morphine were legal in 1900, and mandatory in China by British fiat. These drugs as pushed by German, French, Swiss, British and even Dutch and American corporations caused The Balkan Wars which escalated into WWI. (No it was not another commie youth shooting another fascist medals-cushion). As recommended in Rudebarbs cartoons, decriminalization is often better than legalization for some things. I realize a lot of communist and republican infiltrators want the LP to demand legalization of heroin in coin machines, but it is a stupid idea both politically and in hard reality.

  10. I'm far from astonished that Slavia is dropping in popularity. Nobody I ever talked to who had tried it had had a good experience. One of my co-workers hung out with the kind of young idiot who will try anything, and he said they mostly spent a half-hour or so crying and pissing themselves, which was why HE was never going to try it.

    Frankly, it sounds like the most effective way to kill any popularity Slavia might have would be to put vending machines selling it in every high school in the land.

  11. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do...... ?????? http://www.online-jobs9.com

    1. Ok, Ok, pick any image here http://www.plusaf.com/troll-food.htm and make it your new screensaver....

      Any but the ones at the bottom, that is...
      THEN fuck off...

  12. The Drug War is such a terrible joke, Local Liberty did a segment about some of the lasted new bullshit spins on the drug war:


  13. "In war, truth is the first casualty." . . . Greek scholar, Aeschylus (523-456 BC) . . .

    And a War on Drugs or a War on Poverty are no exception. Have we declared War on Weather yet?

  14. I suppose my problem with the article is this: if drug use was higher, would you favor the War on Drugs? In other words, even if you believe drug use is a serious problem, it does not follow that our laws and policies are a solution and not part of a bigger problem. It seems to me that arguments will change more minds on drug policy if they grant that people can have legitimate concerns about drugs but stress that criminalizing drug use makes any problems attendant to drug use worse and creates a whole host of new problems.

  15. It just goes to show you: talking points reflect what used to be true. This laggardry happens so often, I'm tempted to call it a "law."

  16. now THAT is pretty funny... I've never heard of anyone using Salvia to get high... or anything else.. except cooking. Salvia is the lati name for the common sage plant, a rather common kitchen herb. Parsley sage rosemary and thyme.. the only use I've ever heard of other than cooking is to blend it in with tobacco... or marijuana... to give off a very different and strong herbal odour with the smoke. Most cops used to be able to det\ect the smell of cannabis, and could distinguish between that and salvia and oregano. I've known a few folks to mix so much herb in with the weed cops could not detect the weed. Maybe if you smoke enough it will make you feel somthing...

  17. ALL of this nonsense is driven by some control freak ninnies that are petrified at the remote possibility someone else might be doing something other than what the ninnies would do. Meanwhile our gummint works hard to keep the wide corridors for the transport of marijuana and other such products right across our southern border with Mexico. Not only are the DEA/FBI/BATF/DHS/ICE folks squeezing that one for all they can, both in phoney "intervention" but in the deals they have with the distribution as well. They've got both sides covered. AND they have been steadily arming the cartels, on our nickel. There is a reason Fast and Furious was put in place... and it was NOT to "trace" guns across the border..... the corruptioin and graft are appalling. Not to mention the third of a million citizens that SHOULD be working to support their families rather than getting Three Hots and a Cot on taxpayers' dimes.....

    END THE DRUG WAR. Its an utter failure sociallly, morally, legally, economically, and politically. $65Bn/year into DEA.. for what was that, now? Jailing folks like this man?

    1. and no, I do not use the stuff. Nor do I care to. And I live in a state where it is fully legal.

    2. Yeah I don't do drugs now, but I did as a young adult (only weed regularly, though). This stupid war needs to end. The DEA should be abolished or drastically reduced in size, and refocused.

      If a grown adult wants to do something, they should be allowed to, and can personally deal with the consequences/addictions. The prohibition should end.

  18. Biden has since 1987 been a prohibitionist writing laws for men with guns to crowd teenagers into prison--and shoot a few now and then as an example. Remember that when you go to vote: LP.org is a lot like Legalize Pot.org

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.