Monday, September 20, 2010

Pass the Joint, Hold the Crack

The Office of National Drug Control Policy announced the release of the 2009 report last week, and its key findings seem to be that marijuana, meth, and ecstasy use are up, cocaine use is down, and more young people now think using pot isn't risky.  Click here to read highlights of the findings.  The ambitious amongst us can read all the survey results here.

This year, an estimated 21.8 million Americans over age 12 reported using drugs in the previous month.  The 8.7% of the population who used in 2009 is slightly higher than the 8% who reported using drugs in the 2008 survey.  Marijuana is the most commonly used drug and the only drug used by 58% of the people who reported lighting up.  The drug in second place isn't crack, cocaine, meth, or heroin.  It's prescription drugs:

An estimated 9.2 million people aged 12 or older (3.6 percent) were current users of illicit drugs other than marijuana in 2009. The majority of these (7.0 million persons or 2.8 percent of the population) used psychotherapeutic drugs nonmedically in the past month. An estimated 5.3 million persons used pain relievers nonmedically in the past month in 2009, 2.0 million used tranquilizers, 1.3 million used stimulants, and 370,000 used sedatives.
So, how many people are using the "hard" drugs?  From the report:
  • The number of past month methamphetamine users decreased between 2006 and 2008, but then increased in 2009. The numbers were 731,000 (0.3 percent) in 2006, 529,000 (0.2 percent) in 2007, 314,000 (0.1 percent) in 2008, and 502,000 (0.2 percent) in 2009.
  • The estimated number and percentage of persons aged 12 or older who used cocaine in the past month in 2009 (1.6 million users or 0.7 percent) were similar to those in 2008 (1.9 million or 0.7 percent), but lower than the estimates in 2006 (2.4 million or 1.0 percent).
  • Hallucinogens were used in the past month by 1.3 million persons aged 12 or older (0.5 percent) in 2009, including 760,000 (0.3 percent) who had used Ecstasy. The number and percentage of Ecstasy users in 2009 were higher than in 2008 (555,000 or 0.2 percent). Longer term data show that there were 676,000 Ecstasy users in 2002; the number decreased to 450,000 in 2004, then increased to 760,000 in 2009.
Those relatively tiny percentages show, in short, that marijuana is the drug of choice among Americans.  This NPR feature argues that marijuana use has increased because legalizing medical marijuana has convinced people that pot is socially acceptable and not that harmful.

The true sentencing nerds in our ranks may enjoy going back through the NSDUH surveys over the years.  What they'll find is that the drug du jour changes.  It once was crack; now, it may be meth or ecstasy (though marijuana seems to be perpetually popular).  Drugs, just like teen pop stars and bell bottoms, go in and out of fashion.

Historically, Congress has a bad habit of slapping harsh sentences on the drug du jour.  Increased prison sentences mean higher prison costs, and then it can become difficult to scale those sentences back (for fear of being labeled "soft on crime").  So the spiral goes -- years later, when that drug du jour is no longer as popular or frightening, it's the American people who are left footing the bill for sentences that make no sense.

But punishing the drug du jour need not be a one-way street to higher and longer sentences.  As recent crack reforms have shown, high sentences for once-preferred drugs can be reigned in -- even if reform comes only after decades of battle.  Crack use today is not what it was in 1986.  Years of experience, research, and declining use of the drug have helped to show Congress and the public that those original fears (and sentences) were unjustified.

Wouldn't it be nice if Congress responded to the drug du jour with reasoned foresight, instead of panic and longer sentences?  It can and should, with thoughtful, evidence-based approaches to reducing the use and trafficking of the drug du jour.  Hiking up sentences is not a cure-all for every trendy drug that scores big on the NSDUH.