Seeking A More Accurate Portrait of American Drug Use
> 9/20/2007 12:29:58 PM

The task of measuring illicit drug use and abuse in the United States (not to mention the rest of the world) presents a near-intractible problem: how can we arrive at concrete numbers in the most accurate possible way? How can we figure out who uses which drugs and determine the quantity, frequency and capacity of their habits? Anonymous surveys have never been considered the most reliable method of study, but they remain the foremost means of collecting drug statistics. Like political polls, these surveys usually offer only a very nebulous portrait of popular opinions and behaviors. When answering even anonymous questions about illegal activities, many individuals simply do not tell the truth for obvious reasons: fear of discovery, guilt over the breadth of one's undesirable habits or, in rare cases, overstating the same for personal gratification or amusement. Larger studies may negate these discrepancies to some degree, but they remain imprecise, the investments required to run them debatable. Other statistics generally used to gague degrees of drug use include arrest records and hospital admissions due to overdose or other substance-prompted health issues, but these sources obviously provide an incomplete picture of a much larger problem.

So what can we do to better understand America's relationship with illicit drugs? Check the sewers.

Researchers at the University of Oregon have begun testing the contents of untreated sewage plants to better parse the contents of Americans' bodily waste. The plan makes sense, as biology is a far more precise science than the compilation and interpretation of interviews. Urine tests have long been the most trusted drug-testing method, as the body's act of processing illicit substances leaves behind clear chemical evidence. Though researchers work within a constricted time frame in order to assess the contents of the sludge before it recycles itself or the evidence further degrades, they can assess the consumption habits of a cluster of residents living within a limited space over a very brief period of time, and this sort of data, especially when conducted in multiple locations on a larger scale, makes for a very good overview.

While this approach, which originated as an attempt by Italian researchers to measure levels of cocaine consumption in various neighborhoods, has considerable potential, surveys will provide us with most drug-use summaries for the foreseeable future. And their conclusions remain largely stagnant: numbers, for the large part, have not made any significant shifts in the last few years. 18-20-year-olds remain the largest drug-using constituency, with more than one in five reporting illicit drug use in the preceding month, and perennial leader marijuana remains by far the most widely used substance, but on the plus side, its use has dropped consistently among those aged 12-17 while remaining relatively stable among young adults. The same holds true for cocaine. The nation's top drug stories remain: the increasing recreational use of pharmaceuticals, whose consumption now ranks second only to pot; the expanding influence of methamphetamine, the worldwide use of which exceeds that of cocaine and heroin combined; the rising instance of drug use among Americans over the age of fifty (particularly the 50-55 group, among which reported percentages have nearly doubled since 2002).

Some other disturbing statistical anomalies cannot be explained: the overall number of current reported heroin users more than doubled in one year, with 2005's prevalence rate of .06% rising to .14%. Was this due to increasing honesty among survey participants, or are more Americans truly using heroin? Law enforcement and government reports dismiss the latter, so the question remains unanswered. Despite the fact that the use of traditional illicit drugs like marijuana and cocaine has dropped among younger Americans, their attitudes toward intoxicants in general have grown looser with time: support for the legalization of marijuana and diminished charges for the possession of other illicit substances runs at an all-time high. This shift in perception also at least partially explains the pharmaceutical phenomenon, as many teens believe the use of these drugs to be acceptable. The fact that they are classified as medications rather than intoxicants and that laws prohibiting their use are not a major concern most likely fuels this opinion, reinforcing the fact that, especially in the face of reports naming substances like oxycontin as dangerous drugs of abuse, the public must be better informed about the risks inherent in their non-prescriptive use.

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