Risk Perception and Drug Use Rates

Risk Perception and Drug Use Rates

One of the core tenets of most efforts to curb drug use is education. The theory is that the perceived risk of taking a drug is intrinsically tied to usage rates, because knowledge of the potential dangers of drugs makes people less likely to try them. Whether or not this claim is valid has huge consequences for the future of campaigns to stop drug use. If it proves to be true, it is a powerful indicator that education should be at the forefront of drug policy. If false, current efforts need to be re-shaped in order to more efficiently address the issue.

The Data Source

The Monitoring the Future study is a large-scale questionnaire answered by high school students across the country. It asks 8th, 10th and 12th graders questions about the frequency with which they use various substances and how much risk they associate with each. The authors have long been supporters of the idea that the perception of the dangers of drug directly influences overall usage rates, believing that a lull in perceived risks is followed by a boom in usage. The level of perceived risk is defined as the proportion of respondents who say there is a "great risk" in using a substance regularly.

The Results: Marijuana

As the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is a good indicator of the effects of risk perception. Generally speaking, the level of risk associated with using the drug has corresponded very closely with rates of use. The graphs are basically mirror images of one another, with perceived risk dwindling as usage rates boom and vice-versa. The highest proportion using occurred in the late 70s, when fewer students saw great risks in using it, and usage it an all-time low in 1992, when the perception of the risks was highest. The statistics leveled out and stagnated until around 2004, when the perceived risk dropped and usage consequently increased. In 2011, risk perception in the higher two grades is still declining.

The Results: Inhalants

In 2011, over ten percent of those surveyed said that they’d used inhalants in their lifetime. Generally, the risk associated with inhalants is low, but there was an education campaign showing their dangers between 1995 and 1996, when usage rates were at their highest. As the perceived risk shot up the amount of respondents reporting use in the last year dropped significantly. This continued until 2003, when there was a slight increase in usage. The authors attribute this to "generational forgetting," because the students impacted by the campaign were no longer in the study group, and the perceived risk has begun to dwindle accordingly.

The Results: Cocaine

Cocaine is another drug that shows the link between perception of risk and usage rates. In the late 1970s, there was declining perception of risk, which was accompanied by a steep rise in usage. In 1986, basketball superstar Len Bias died, and his experimental use of cocaine was erroneously held responsible. This gained notable media attention, and the message was absorbed before it was later found that cocaine was not the cause of his death. There was a sharp spike in danger perception over the next few years, and a corresponding decrease in usage rates. Perceived risk roughly doubled and usage decreased by two-thirds.

The Results: Heroin

Heroin is a fairly unique drug in terms of this data because the perception of risk has always been high, with around 60 percent of respondents consistently seeing great risk in using even just once or twice. This has been accompanied by generally low usage rates, with ordinarily less than one percent of respondents having used in the past year. In the 90s, there was an initial decrease in risk perception, which was coupled with an increase in use, before risk increased again and use became less common.

Implications for the Future

Overall, the data supports the notion that the perception of the risks of using a substance has a significant impact on the amount of people who decide to use it. The logical idea that education about the risks of drugs leads to a decrease in use is wholly verified by the study, and this should serve to drive future efforts to educate the public on drug use. The only problem with this assumption is that many of the campaigns in the past have a short life-span and a matching short impact. For example, the inhalants campaign was extremely effective, but as new students flood into high schools its effect is completely lost.

It’s clear that what is needed for the youth of the country is consistent education. Instead of pushing education only when usage rates are soaring, there should be a continuous supply of objective information about the dangers of drugs. This would theoretically nullify the effects of generational forgetting, and therefore contribute to consistently low usage rates like those observed for heroin. The ideal campaign should also incorporate all drugs, to prevent any from slipping through the cracks and therefore being assumed to be safe. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it’s firmly in the nation’s best interest.

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