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September 16, 2010

Government reports that drug use is up ... let the spin begin

As detailed in this new AP story, the "rate of illegal drug use rose last year to the highest level in nearly a decade, fueled by a sharp increase in marijuana use and a surge in ecstasy and methamphetamine abuse, the government reported Wednesday."  Here are the details along with some of the early spin:

Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the 9 percent increase in drug use disappointing but said he was not surprised given "eroding attitudes" about the perception of harm from illegal drugs and the growing number of states approving medicinal marijuana.  "I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to our young people," Kerlikowske said in an interview.

The annual report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found marijuana use rose by 8 percent and remained the most commonly used drug.

Mike Meno, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said the survey is more proof that the government's war on marijuana has failed in spite of decades of enforcement efforts and arrests. "It's time we stop this charade and implement sensible laws that would tax and regulate marijuana the same way we do more harmful — but legal — drugs like alcohol and tobacco," Meno said.

On a positive note, cocaine abuse continues to decline, with use of the drug down 32 percent from its peak in 2006. About 21.8 million Americans, or 8.7 percent of the population age 12 and older, reported using illegal drugs in 2009. That's the highest level since the survey began in 2002. The previous high was just over 20 million in 2006.

The survey, which was being released Thursday, is based on interviews with about 67,500 people. It is considered the most comprehensive annual snapshot of drug use in the United States.

Other results show a 37 percent increase in ecstasy use and a 60 percent jump in the number of methamphetamine users. In the early 2000s, there was a widespread public safety campaign to warn young people about the dangers of ecstasy as a party drug, but that effort declined as use dropped off.  "The last few years, I think we've taken our eye off the ball on ecstasy," Kerlikowske said.

My view and spin on these drug use numbers is significantly impacted by the data released by the FBI earlier this week reporting that violent crimes continue to see a sharp decline (details here).  Is it possible that these days — perhaps because we are mired in a down economic period — increased drug use contribues to a lower violent crime rate?  Might one look at all this data and reasonably suggest (or at least hope) that decriminalizing marijuana could help get the violent crime rate to go even lower?

I will be the first one to concede that legalization of marijuana (or any other drugs) will generally tend to increase the use of marijuana (or any other drugs).  But if increased drug use is not leading to increased crime  — or increased road fatalities, which also hit a record low last year — why should increased drug use be a major cause for concern for modern criminal justice systems?

I have no doubt that increased drug use produces increases in various social harms, and I generally support greater public health expenditures to try to reduce those harms.  Likewise, I support greater public health expenditures to try to reduce the social harms of other "vices" humans seem to enjoy like drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, eating too many staurated fats, playing violent video games, etc.  But unless and until there is clear evidence that increased drug use results in a lot more serious crime, I continue to be troubled by our use of criminal justice systems to address the tangential social harms of how some people opt to exercise their personal autonomy.

September 16, 2010 at 09:31 AM | Permalink


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First off, I want to thank Doug for the debate we had on this subject on Tuesday at Ohio State. The tape of the debate is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmQrGhQoE_o.

I would make a few points in response to this article. First, while there are serious people who support marijuana legalization, there are no serious people who support unqualified marijuana legalization, e.g., making it available to minors; and there are precious few serious people who would legalize in any form such things as methamphetamine, crack, heroin or ecstasy.

Second, it's more than a stretch to speculate that increased marijuana use has caused the decrease in crime. Every study of which I am aware has found that people who use marijuana, and other illegal drugs, are far more likely to be involved in other crime than the population at large. Intake statistics from prison back this up; the percentage of prisoners with a past featuring drug use vastly exceeds the percentage in the general population.

Instead, it's more plausible to believe that increased incarceration, among other things, accounts for the decrease in crime. Numerous articles on this site have bemoaned that, in recent years, we have become "incarceration nation." It is simply not sensible to believe that there is no relationship between locking up more people who commit crime, and the fact that, simultaneously, less crime is getting committed.

Doug notes, "But if increased drug use is not leading to increased crime — or increased road fatalities, which also hit a record low last year — why should increased drug use be a major cause for concern for modern criminal justice systems?"

Let me suggest two flaws in this analysis. First -- and to say the least -- we don't know that increased marijuana use is THE CAUSE OF less crime; as noted, the far more likely explanation is that keeping more criminals off the street is leading to less crime. Indeed I think the more likely prospect is that the crime-reducing benefits of incarceration are so substantial that crime has decreased NOTWITHSTANDING last year's rise in marijuana use.

This is illustrated by the other part of Doug's observation: that traffic fatalities have continued to fall. This has been the trend for a while now, and is co-extensive with the trend among courts to treat drunk and drugged driving more harshly than had been the case when I became an AUSA. In the old days, drunk drivers generally did not go to jail. Now, much more often, they do, even if only for a day or two (for a first offense).

Jail counts with people. It really does. More than any other remedy the criminal justice system offers, it has the potential to change future behavior. The evidence suggests that adding drunk drivers to "incarceration nation" saves lives.

Finally, I agree with Doug that education and public health services are part of the answer. Education in particular can be effective, and the sooner it starts, the more effective it is. But those and other tools in the fight against drug abuse and the sometimes horrific harms that flow from it work best in conjunction with, not exclusive of, the realistic threat of imprisonment.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 16, 2010 11:40:23 AM

Thanks, as always Bill, for your thoughtful engagement in this space. Thanks also for your kind comments about me in your post at C&C about our drug legalization debate: http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2010/09/a-legalization-debate.html

On the merits here, I think we agree more than we disagree, though I feel strongly that a criminal justice intervention is critical only if/when the drug (or alcohol or tobacco or saturated fat) user begins producing tangible harms or serious risks on other people. As you know from being a regular reader, Bill, I want to bring the criminal justice hammer down if/when addictions produce bad/harmful behavior such as DUI. Thus, I do not find compelling excuses based on drug or alcohol use for violent/risky behaviors.

But, as we discussed during our debate earlier this week, the very fact that some drugs are illegal may itself be a criminogenic factor --- the troubled kid forced to get his desired pot from the local pusher rather than the local bar may be forced into a crime-inducing environment that a sensible regime of pot legalization/regulation might minimize.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 16, 2010 1:50:46 PM

I propose that articles such as this one replace the term "drug use" with "illegal drug use." An accounting of "drug use" in this country is woefully incomplete unless it includes the billions of prescription drug pills, many of which are mood-altering, taken everyday, not to mention nicotine and alcohol.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 17, 2010 1:06:18 PM

Marijuana is one of the most famous drugs most of the people using nowadays.Young guys are using more and more marijuana than any alcoholic drink.Addiction of marijuana is also increasing day by day in between the males.Everyone should take part in overcoming this type of stuff otherwise social crime will go on increasing day by day.

Posted by: wilson | Oct 8, 2010 7:59:14 AM

Nice information.marijuana is a psychoactive drug.It consist of major psychoactive chemical compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol,cannabinoletc.

Posted by: Astermeds | Jan 7, 2011 7:33:08 AM

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