Monitoring the monitoring

For some reason, I just can’t get too excited about the release of the new Monitoring the Future data.
“bullet” The Drug Czar is all agog at the “dramatic declines in teen drug use” except, of course, for the increase in teens using other drugs.
“bullet” DARE Generation Diary has an amusing chart showing a correlation between the Drug Czar’s media budget and teen drug use… as the Drug Czar’s budget decreases, so does teen drug use. Hey, it’s as legitimate as most of the correlation attempts that the Drug Czar uses in justifying the drug war.
“bullet” Eric Sterling notes that the story of increased prescription drug use should include better warnings about drug interactions with common dangerous drugs like acetaminophen (which, unlike illegal drugs like marijuana, has serious risk of fatality in certain interactions).
“bullet” Alex at the Drug Law Blog points out that increased prohibition is likely to drive teens to the more risky prescription drug experimentation.
A variety of interesting points and articles, but ultimately Monitoring the Future seems a lot to me like governmental masturbation — to images of fantasy numbers that they desperately imagine actually love their… policies.
Here’s the reality.
First, some teens will experiment with things that are not good for them (or would be better for them if they waited until later in life). No matter what you do. People who believe in a drug-free America need to be placed in padded protective custody where they can’t hurt anybody and where they can have extended conversations with the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte about the dragons lurking at the edge of the world.
When I was in High School, two ridiculously stupid classmates died from huffing kerosene. This was well before the creation of the Darwin Awards but even then I unconsciously grocked their truth. And yet I, a minister’s son and a goody-two-shoes, was also tempted by friends in a cemetery (don’t ask) into trying an illegal (for me) drug called “beer.” Now I don’t know if the kerosene huffing would have been avoided if something safe like marijuana had been available to them. But I do know that drug laws/policies/advertising did nothing to prevent me or my thankfully-removed-from-the-gene-pool classmates from experimenting.
So, minor fluctuations in “teen drug use” as a gauge of drug policy are pretty much meaningless to me. And the classifications of drugs in Monitoring the Future are unhelpful.
Here’s three things I’d like to see to get a real picture of teens and drug problems (and only one could be accomplished within the current structure of Monitoring the Future data).

  1. A comparison of trends in relation to the actual dangers of specific drugs. This is the one thing that could be done now to some extent with MtF data. Create a realistic and truthful ranking of drugs (both illegal and “legal”) in terms of their actual health and safety threats and find out whether trends of teen use are gravitating to the more dangerous or to the safer drugs. This could be useful information for policy analysis (of course, this will never happen because of the political resistance to calling any illicit drugs “safer”).
  2. Ending the conflation of “use” with “abuse.” Someone who uses a drug casually without ill effects (other than legal effects) is much different than someone who completely disappears into a world of drug abuse, and general “use” statistics tells you nothing about the extent of real problems. We need real, concrete distinctions between use and abuse (and not the deliberate misdirection of “treatment admissions” that the Czar likes to use).
  3. Provide a real laboratory. Again, this is something that the government will do everything it can to prevent because it doesn’t want useful data — only its masturbatory fantasies. What I mean by a real laboratory is letting states or countries follow their own citizens’ wishes and legalize a drug. See what happens. It won’t be the end of the world. And it might give us a chance to do some meaningful comparisons of data over time and see what real policy changes might do.

But no, every year, the Drug Czar anxiously awaits his advance copy of MtF and retreats into the back room where he can thumb through the figures over and over again until an picture forms in his mind that makes him feel good.
But it doesn’t do a damned thing for the teens.

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