Is Drug Use Really on the Rise?

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REUTERS/Fredy Builes

Each year when the federal government releases new statistics on drug use, the bad news always gets reported first. That’s partly because bad news is always a better story than good news. It’s also partly because government anti-drug agencies depend on bad news to maintain funding levels from Congress, so they publicize danger signs first.

So I wasn’t surprised when I heard on NPR this morning that the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released today by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), was “alarming.” The headline that SAMHSA emphasized is that use of all illegal drugs rose in 2009. According to the report, 21.8 million Americans ages 12 and older told researchers they had used illegal drugs in the past month; that’s 8.7% of the population, compared to just 8% in 2008.

But virtually all of the (relatively small) increase in drug use came from the growing ranks of pot smokers. Cocaine use is actually down (only about 0.7% of the population admits using coke, compared to 1% in 2006). The rate of prescription-drug use rose in the early- and mid-’00s, but it has been flat since 2007. The rate at which we use methamphetamine is also unchanged. And as the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported earlier this year, hard drug use among 8th-, 10th- and 12th- graders continues to decline. Meth use among kids is down by at least two-thirds since 1999.

Which leaves marijuana. As I reported at some length in this 2002 story, it’s not clear whether smoking pot is good or bad for you, but the evidence seems to indicate it’s more or less a wash: pot can get you arrested, which is certainly bad for you, and smoking anything isn’t good for your lungs. But we live in a Weeds culture now, and the benefits of moderate marijuana use (increase in sociability, decrease in stress, low addiction potential) have never been clearer. Marijuana is also on the verge of legalization in many states — you can buy it in some places with the equivalent of a doctor’s note — so it’s not surprising that use of pot is rising. (More on Does Big Beer Fear Big Bud?)

SAMHSA also continues to misunderstand the very nature of other drugs it reports on. For instance, SAMHSA calls ecstasy (or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) a “hallucinogen,” which is not exactly right: although MDMA users sometimes report hallucinating, the more frequent reports are of heightened emotional clarity. That’s why ecstasy is being used as an experimental treatment in federally supported studies of PTSD patients who haven’t improved on standard treatments. The use of ecstasy, although still very rare, has risen slightly — from 0.2% of the population, or 555,000 people, in 2008 to 0.5% (1.3 million people) last year. That means the use of e has gone back to the levels of the late 1990s. But once again, e is a drug whose health benefits are being prominently investigated. It makes sense that curiosity-seekers would rediscover it.

As for other drugs: use of alcohol is unchanged, while the decline in tobacco use has stalled. Also, a headline buried in the SAMHSA report: the number of people who begin to use illegal drugs each day has not changed from last year. Every day, approximately 8,500 Americans use an illegal drug for the first time. Nearly 60% of these people are smoking pot for the first time. These figures are similar to the numbers of the past few years. The average age at which an American first smokes pot? Not 12 or 13, as scary reports would suggest, but 17.

Finally, the number of Americans who report being dependent on substances has been stable since 2002 — about 22 million of us are dependent. It’s still too high, but let’s all take a deep breath. With or without a bong at hand.

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