I'm delighted that the New York Times finally has a columnist wiling to point out the idiocies of the drug war. Too bad he's such a sucker for the idiocies of the extreme libertarian fringe of the anti-prohibition movement.
One of the great drug-war follies is to pretend that drugs such as cannabis and MDMA are as dangerous as heroin (or its close substitute, pure oxycodone), smokable cocaine (including crack), and methamphetamine. It would be useful if John Tierney used his platform on the op-ed page of the New York Times to make that point, and the related point that alcohol is, at a pharmacological level, much more dangerous than many currently illicit drugs.
Instead, Tierney seems to be intent on pretending that some of the really dangerous drugs are in fact no big deal. Last time, Tierney massaged a bunch of statistics he clearly didn't understand to "prove" that Oxycontin abuse is not really a significant problem. Today it's methamphetamine's turn to get a coat of the Tierney whitewash.
Tierney cites the low ratio of meth addicts to lifetime meth users in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health as evidence that meth isn't very addictive. But everyone in the field knows that the aptly named NS-DUH misses the majority of problem drug users.
For example: In 1989, the NS-DUH — then called the NHSDA — estimated that there were 500,000 people in the United States who used cocaine or crack weekly or more. But the arrestee drug testing data showed that three to four times that number of heavy cocaine users were arrested that year. A projection of the NHSDA frequency estimates suggested that total cocaine consumption in the US was about 30 metric tons a year, though it wasn't hard to see from the level of activity in the market that the real number had to be about 10 times that large.
When you reflect that heavy illicit drug users make up about 2% of the adult population, while the nonresponse rate in the household drug surveys runs about 20%, it's easy to see how a big chunk of the drug users might be in the group that couldn't be found or decided not to tell the nice man from the government's contractor about their illegal activity. (For a devastating critique of the national drug data collection effort, see this National Academy panel report.) NS-DUH is useful for some purposes, but measuring chronic serious drug abuse, as opposed to drug use, isn't one of them.