Major Surveys Offer Incomplete Picture Of Student Drug Use, Experts Caution
By Ellen Flax
The national anti-drug plan proposed by President Bush last month places great emphasis on reducing by specific percentages over the next two years the number of teenagers who use cocaine and other drugs.
But the major federal surveys that measure the proportion of teenagers who use drugs offer an incomplete--and perhaps misleading--picture of student drug use, several experts on the subject cautioned last week.
They said that the data collected by the federal government provide insufficient information about the very groups many believe are most likely to abuse drugs--minorities, inner-city dwellers, and high-school dropouts.
They also said that increasingly negative societal attitudes toward drug use may convince some respondents to lie when answering the anonymous questionnaires that are commonly used by researchers.
The national drug-control strategy states that over the next two years, the nation must work to reduce by 10 percent the number of teenagers reporting any use of an illegal drug during the previous month, as reported on a national household survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Over the same period, the plan also calls for a 20 percent reduction in the number of adolescents who report any use of cocaine during the previous month. Over the next decade, the plan calls for a 50 percent reduction in both figures.
"We have a 'blind men and an elephant' situation," said Douglas Anglin, the director of the Drug Abuse Research Group at the University of California at Los Angeles, referring to the federal data-collection effort. "The best thing we have is a partial jigsaw puzzle."
The nida National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which has been conducted 10 times since 1972, has found that self-reported drug use among youths, as well as the general population, has dropped since reports of such use reached a peak in the late 1970's.
Results from the latest survey, released last summer, showed that 6.4 percent of youths between the ages of 12 and 17 reported having used marijuana during the previous month, down from 12 percent in 1985; 1.1 percent, or approximately 225,000 respondents , said they had used cocaine, down from 1.5 percent in 1985.
The results were based on anonymous responses to detailed questionnaires by more than 8,800 people, chosen to be a representative sample of the country's population.
Joseph Gfroerer, chief of the statistical-analysis and population-survey section at nida, said families are notified in advance about the project, and about one-quarter refuse to take part.
"We recognize that there is some underreporting," he said, noting that researchers assume that the nonrespondents are more likely to be drug abusers than the general population.
Mr. Gfroerer, like other observers, notes that the survey is less likely to include inner-city residents. The survey also does not include the homeless, the imprisoned, or the institutionalized, all of whom have higher drug-abuse rates.
The results of a national survey of 400,000 youths between the ages of 12 and 17 released by the private National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education last month concluded that as many as 338,000 students--a third more than nida found--were using cocaine at least once a month. Drug experts interviewed last week maintained the study was not statistically sound because only schools that purchased the drug survey offered by pride were included in the study.
'Wouldn't Pick It Up'
The other federal data-collection effort--the so-called high school senior survey--has been conducted yearly since 1975 for nida by University of Michigan researchers.
The latest survey, based on the anonymous responses of 16,000 1988 high-school seniors in approximately 130 public and private schools, found that 18 percent said they had used marijuana during the previous month, down from 21 percent in 1987, and that 3.4 said they had used cocaine during the previous month, down from a peak of 6.7 percent in 1985.
A number of experts, including the Michigan researchers, note that the survey may be underreporting the total number of youths who use drugs because it does not include information about dropouts.
"It's not really addressing what is going on in ghettos and inner cities," said Patrick O'Malley, a member of the Michigan team. "There could be a crack problem in an inner city and we wouldn't pick it up.''
However, he said, the survey is a good marker of drug-use trends among youths because academically weak seniors, who presumably are closest to dropping out, have drug-use patterns that are similar to those of good students.
"Those folks are obviously living in a dream world," countered Rudy Arredondo, special assistant to the District of Columbia commissioner of public health and a member of the Maryland Commission on Black and Minority Health. "Obviously the [youths] who are drug addicts are dysfunctional and they are not likely to stay in the system."
But because no better set of information is available, some observers said, policymakers have no choice but to use the information collected by nida.
Mr. Anglin, of ucla, said federal policymakers should rely on a variety of statistics, including those collected about drug use among arrested criminals and patients admitted to hospital emergency rooms, rather than just the household survey.
"You cannot use a single criterion as a measure of success," he said.