Further Reading

How many addicts are there in the U.S., and how is the Drug War affecting this number?

Dear Stanton

What exactly are the statistics for drug addiction? i.e., where can one find the percentage of people who use a specific drug and compare it the number of actual "addicts"? I find it interesting (typical, really) that the media in this country never publishes such obvious information as it would probably undermine the current hysteria over drugs.


Dear Joseph:

One way to calculate the number/percentage of addicts is to compare those who have ever taken a drug with those who currently take it with those who currently take it daily (or nearly so). Of course, many regular, daily users wouldn't be classified as addicts (like the physician described by Zinberg and his colleagues who for decades injected morphine daily, but did not use on weekends and vacations, without ever increasing his dosage or undergoing withdrawal -- see Meaning of Addiction, Chapter 1).

Unfortunately, you can't get government statistics on daily use. The most frequent use calculated in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Household Survey on Drug Abuse is 51 or more times in the prior year, or an average of once weekly (or more), which would obviously include many userswho are not addicts.

The 1995 Household Survey found that of 3.7 million cocaine users in the last year, 1.2 million used on average at least once a month and 600,000 used at least weekly on average. Although these 600,000 would not qualify as clinical addicts, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey wants to claim these and more. This is because, compared with 1980, McCaffrey points out that monthly illicit drugs users have declined by approximately half, to 12.5 million, but the drug budget has gone from $1 billion to $16 billion.

Why do we need so much money if drug use has declined so radically? Because, according to McCaffrey and others (such as Herb Kleber, formerly deputy czar in charge of demand reduction), the number of frequent users/addicts has remained stable or actually increased! In other words, the drug war has succeeded in getting casual users to quit, but has failed to make any dent in addiction! Thus, among 12.5 million current users of any illicit drug (this is use during past month), and 2.1 million current users of heroin, crack, and cocaine, McCaffrey reports there are 3.6 million current addicts.

Where did he get the extra addicts? In addition to the 600,000 weekly or more frequent cocaine users in the household survey, SAMHSA speculates that there may be another 1.4 million weekly cocaine users, adding up to (for McCaffrey) 2 million cocaine addicts right there! SAMSHA relies for its estimate of growing frequent cocaine users on another statistic -- drug-related hospital emergency room visits -- which have increased dramatically, from 5,000 in 1980 to 142,000 in 1995 for cocaine, and from 12,000 to 76,000 in 1995 for heroin.

Emergency room visits still leave McCaffrey millions short in the addict department! Obviously, the government can't say how many genuine addicts there are, and the 3.6 million number seems like a tremendous overestimate based on counting anything approaching regular use of heroin, crack, cocaine and other drugs, both actually measured and estimated. But what government statistics most distinctly show is that the U.S. cannot reduce regular or heavy drug use and that we are suffering more and more casualties in the drug war among drug users, no matter how much we increase the drug budget.

Best, Stanton