Drug Availability and Usage Rates
If the war on drugs has done nothing else, it’s certainly caught many large-scale producers of drugs and shut down a lot of supply chains. The presumed effect of this is that the amount of people taking drugs will decrease in lock-step with the reduced supply. The effectiveness of the measures is fairly hard to gauge, because drug usage rates fluctuate wildly, seemingly independent of the ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of drugs on the streets. Using the data from the recent "Monitoring the Future" study, we can examine the effects of the availability of drugs on the amount of people who use them.
The Data Source
The data for this article comes from a huge survey conducted on students in grades 8, 10 and 12 every year. The main aim of the study is to determine how prevalent different drugs are in each year, but it also takes many secondary considerations into account. Each student is asked how easy the different drugs are to obtain from their perspective, and this can be combined with the prevalence data to see if they correspond. The number of students responding that it’s "fairly" or "very easy" to obtain for each drug determines their availability rating.
The Results: Marijuana
Marijuana remains the most accessible of all illicit drugs and the most widely used. This general trend appears to support the hypothesis, and there are several fluctuations in the data which also add weight to the claim. The lowest number of users came in 1992, when there was also the lowest availability (even though there was still very high availability overall for 10th and 12th graders), and the increase in use following that year was accompanied by a slight rise in availability. Overall, we can assume a weak correlation, but the results seem to suggest that something else is contributing to the prevalence its use.
The Results: LSD
The perceived availability of LSD actually corresponds pretty closely with the amount of people using it. The graphs follow the same pattern, reaching matching peaks and troughs in certain years. The most important event in the availability of LSD is when a large manufacturing operation was shut down in 2000. This lead to a massive decrease in availability scores, and the amount of users dropped in lock-step with them. This is a definitive example of the effects reducing the availability of drugs can have.
The Results: Cocaine
Cocaine’s results create some uncertainty about the effect of controlling availability on reducing drug use. In the late 70s, cocaine started to progressively increase in availability, and this was accompanied by greatly increased usage in the early 80s. However, throughout the 80s, availability continued to rise, yet the drug’s use sharply declined. This may be related to the death of a famous basketball player in 1986, which was originally supposed to be caused by first-time cocaine use. It created a media storm, so the population was especially aware of the dangers of the drug. The results therefore also indicate that the perception of the risks of the drug is more important than its availability.
The Results: Amphetamines
There is more tentative support of the idea that availability of drugs is related to prevalence of their use in amphetamines. The peak for amphetamine use hit in 1981, at the same time as a huge surge in availability. Their availability then decreased along with their usage until 1991, at which point there was a five-year increase in availability and a ten-year increase in usage. Since then, the both the use of amphetamines and their perceived availability has generally decreased.
What Does it All Mean?
Overall, it’s not really easy to draw a conclusion from the data on the availability rates for different drugs and the prevalence of their usage. On one hand, there is plenty of evidence (most notably from LSD) that significant reductions in availability are accompanied by reductions in usage, and this certainly stands up to basic logic. However, the inconsistent results from drugs like marijuana and cocaine indicate that there is clearly a more influential factor at play. This is most likely the perceived dangers of different drugs.
For the long-running and arguably ineffective war on drugs, this means two things. Firstly, the efforts of DEA agents to shut down huge drug manufacturers do have an impact on the amount of people using them. This means that although a lot of money is poured into taking down the manufacturers, it does have a beneficial effect. Secondly, and most importantly, controlling availability is not sufficient in itself to curb drug use amongst the population. Marijuana is a good example, because no matter how many illegal plantations are discovered, all it takes is a bag of seeds to start another.
Education is really the key factor in this debate. Whilst the similarity between the availability rates and the usage rates is clear in some cases, the perceived risks almost always correlate with the amount of users. A lot of money will undoubtedly be invested in catching large-scale drug producers in the future, but to truly reduce the nation’s drug problem it’s extremely important to invest significant sums of money into educational campaigns too.