Measuring the Drug Problem

Measuring the Drug Problem

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Spring 2000). "Measuring the Drug Problem." Alaska Justice Forum 17(1): 2-3. The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program, administered within Alaska by the Justice Center and the Alaska Department of Corrections, is one of several national sources of data on the extent of the use of illicit drugs. As described in this article, there are several sources of national data on drug use, but few established, ongoing sources of accurate data on the extent of the illicit drug problem in Alaska.

The ADAM program, which the Justice Center is administering with the Department of Corrections, is one of several national sources of data on the extent of the use of illicit drugs. As discussed in the article in this issue "Drug Use Among Arrestees in Anchorage", data from ADAM will be available to local agencies, and in the future the testing and survey questions will be tailored to elicit more information in response to the specific data needs of Alaska agencies. At present, while there are several sources of national data, there are few established, on-going sources of accurate data on the extent of the illicit drug problem in Alaska.

Availability of Drugs

Law enforcement agencies in Alaska, including the in-state offices of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), can only measure drugs which are seized and estimate the extent of the market using the size of their seizures and other information derived from investigations and case processing. In general, officers consider the estimates that they make to be conservative, that is, underestimates of the availability of drugs.

As a group, Alaska drug enforcement officials describe changes and trends in the drug market based on their work over a period of time—growth in marijuana cultivation, increasing availability of amphetamines, persistence in the importation of large amounts of cocaine—and arrests on drug-related charges have increased over the last two decades, but the efforts of law enforcement agencies are not primarily directed toward measurement.

Federal Measurements of Drug Use

In addition to ADAM, the federal government has three other major drug use indicators: the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), and Monitoring the Future. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been conducted annually since 1990. Before then it was conducted periodically beginning in 1971. In-person interviews on past and current use of a wide range of licit and illicit substances are conducted with a probability sample of persons aged twelve or older drawn from the nation. Table 1 shows results from the NHSDA since the mid-1980s.

Table 1. Estimated Prevalence of Drug and Alcohol Use During Lifetime

DAWN captures data semiannually on reports of deaths from drug abuse and emergency room treatment related to drug abuse from a national sample of emergency rooms and medical examiners. The program has been collecting data since 1975.

Monitoring the Future, which is sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, surveys a national sample of high school students on availability and use of drugs and attitudes toward use. This survey has also been conducted since the mid-70s.

While the instruments provide different types of national data which may have relevance for Alaska, ADAM is currently the only national program which holds possibility for providing specific state-related data.

State Measurement of Drug Use

There seems to be no continuing in-state measurement of illicit drug use among the state population as a whole, although there are certainly data assembled by many agencies which belong to the overall drug abuse picture. The Alaska State Plan for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Services, presented by the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse as a statewide agenda for 1999 through 2003, has as part of its agenda improving the consistency and maintenance of data from various sources.

Various agencies, particularly the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, have commissioned occasional individual studies which look at the drug issue from various angles. In particular, in 1998 the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the Epidemiology Section of HHS sought to measure the extent of substance abuse as a basis for determining the need for treatment programs. The study, which was conducted by The Gallup Organization, concluded above all, as have other studies, that the substance abused most widely in Alaska is, by far, alcohol, and the number of adults needing treatment for alcoholism is much higher than number needing treatment for other drugs. Among controlled drugs, dependency on marijuana was most common, with 4.2 per cent of the population estimated as dependant and an additional 1.0 per cent defined as abusers. The survey also found that 0.2 per cent of adult household residents showed evidence of a dependency on cocaine; 0.1 per cent, a dependency on amphetamines; and 0.1 per cent on hallucinogens.

The state also conducts the Youth Behavior Risk Survey every two years through the schools to assess attitudes and behaviors which present risks to health. This survey, however, is not administered in all parts of the state.

While the plan presented by the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse advocates improvements in coordination among existing data and studies and also recommends more regular surveys of the prevalence of alcoholism and drug abuse, the establishment of such testing measures will depend on resource allocations from the state legislature as well as acquisition of federal funds.