We start by noting that the report of a prior committee of the National Research Council (2001) made numerous recommendations for strengthening the federal data collection effort. That committee concluded, for example, that there was a dearth of data on consumption (as opposed to prevalence) and that this topic deserved high priority. The committee expressed concern that access to critical prevalence datasets was unreasonably restricted. It recommended, for example, that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) work out arrangements along the lines developed by the National Center for Educational Statistics to allow researchers to work with restricted datasets in a way that preserves confidentiality but still allows full utilization of the data. It also recommended that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) ensure that the longitudinal panels of Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey become available for outside researchers.
Although there have been some improvements in data systems in recent years, such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), few of the recommendations of the 2001 committee report have been implemented. In this report we repeat and emphasize some of those previous recommendations, and we supplement them by providing specific comments on individual datasets that are critical to assessing the determinants of the demand for illegal drugs. We note that we did not have the resources to develop a full research agenda for assessing the effectiveness of existing programs and policies aimed at reducing demand. Before providing recommendations on data and research, we note that existing data are often misused. Advocates, legislators, and policy makers frequently cite level and trend data from the NSDUH or other survey data sources that are misleading. In some cases, such data are used to produce point estimates of some quantities, such as annual U.S. cocaine consumption, that are known to severely understate the true figures. In other cases, comparisons are made about drug use behaviors among sociodemographic groups with very different response rates and that do not have internal validity.
It is important that policy makers and the public be aware of systematic limitations and potential biases when these data are used. In addition, it would be helpful to policy makers and analysts if the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies would provide more extensive, explicit, and accessible guidance regarding the known limitations of existing data that might otherwise be miscommunicated or misused.