Drug use info charts contradict popular beliefs about US substance abuse

Science Daily reports that Rice University charts provide some seldom-recognized insights into drug use in the United States. The Brian C. Bennett Drug Charts bring together decades of data on all types of substance abuse – including alcohol abuse. Scholars say that the real picture of US substance abuse differs vastly from that presented by the press, and believe that the summarized data can help to inform policymakers on effective approaches to drug-related issues. Below is a summary of some of the misconceptions surrounding substance abuse.

False: Most people who use illegal drugs become addicts for years, if not a lifetime

The charts clearly show that the majority of people older than 12who have used illegal substances during their lifetime quit during the first year. For most, illicit drug use ends after an initial period of experimentation. 18-20 year-olds are the most likely to indulge in risky behaviors, but by the age of 26, the likelihood of drug use begins to taper off.

Scholars say that this makes drug-war policies that land young people with criminal records that remain with them for a lifetime into question. After all, the figures show that as people mature, they are very likely to stop using drugs. They say that the facts call for a “more rational and compassionate” response to drug use.

False: Alcohol abuse is less damaging to society than drug use

Because alcohol use is legal and socially accepted, alcohol causes far more damage to lives than drug use does. Less than 20% of people with substance addiction and substance use disorders are using illegal drugs. 80% of substance abuse problems can be attributed to alcohol. Since we have already seen that alcohol prohibition is pointless, educating young people on the dangers of alcohol abuse should be a priority.

False: Marijuana is a “Gateway Drug”

The figures show that marijuana use is not a sure precursor to using narcotics. Over 50% of people younger than 60 have used it at one time or another, and of these, only 10% even continued to smoke marijuana on a regular basis. If the “Gateway” theory were true, one would expect to see a much higher incidence of “hard drug” use in the US population.

False: A significant percentage of the population is addicted to hard drugs

There aren’t even many people who try hard drugs. 0.6% of the population will use cocaine during the average month, and only 0.2% will use heroin or meth. Of these people, an even smaller percentage are addicts.

False: The drug war is reducing substance abuse OR substance abuse is on the rise

Substance abuse figures for illegal drugs are stable and have been since before the “war on drugs” was announced. It is certainly true that the types of drugs commonly used have changed, but the percentage of people who develop drug problems remains constant. The war on drugs has failed, and hard evidence brings the message home.

False: Harsh punishment is the only appropriate approach to drug abuse

Research shows that certain US states and foreign countries have devised successful strategies to combat drug abuse without prison sentences and even without prohibition. This seems to imply that harm reduction strategies really do work, and that by providing help and support to those with substance use disorders, the human and financial cost of incarceration for drug offences could be reduced.

False: There is no racism in government approaches to drug issues

For a long time now, black communities have complained that they are unfairly profiled and targeted in the drug war. More black people are currently incarcerated for drug use than white people, despite studies showing that whites are as likely or more likely to use drugs; and now that 90% of opioid users are white, there is greater openness to regarding addiction as a disease rather than a criminal offence.

False: Drug availability predicts the incidence of drug abuse

Fears that a softened attitude towards drug abuse will increase drug availability and therefore drug use have been a significant obstacle to decriminalization, but facts show that psychological problems and financial insecurity are much more significant factors predicting drug use than mere availability.

Substance abuse disorders remain a problem. Fresh approaches are needed

Although the facts and figures paint a much more optimistic picture than reports in the news media would lead us to believe, we should not underestimate the human cost of substance use disorders. They remain a problem that ruins lives, with a knock-on effect that harms others in society.

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can kill not only the person who is intoxicated, but an innocent person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Families are torn apart. Crime and violence are fostered. People must be held accountable for their actions, but as long as these are not violent, measures that are more constructive than incarceration should be investigated and implemented.

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