What Do Student Drug Use Surveys Really Mean?
Males, Mike A., Journal of School Health
Federally funded projects such as Monitoring the Future and PRIDE, as well as numerous state and local activities devote considerable resources to survey junior and senior high school students' drug use. (1) Monitoring the Future is a detailed annual survey of high school students, began in 1975 for 12th graders and 1991 for eighth and 10th graders, on issues such as drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, and other personal behaviors and attitudes. PRIDE, a congressionally authorized annual survey by the Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education, surveys students in grades 6-12 on drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and related issues. These surveys generate the main, and often the sole, means by which drug education policies and programs are evaluated. Student surveys also represent the main measure of national drug policy design and evaluation, as noted by their prominence in the 2003 National Drug Control Strategy report. (2)
The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Reauthorization Act of 1998 designated its main objective as "reduction of adolescent unlawful drug use (as measured in terms of illicit drug use during the past 30 days by the Monitoring the Future Survey of the University of Michigan or the National PRIDE Survey conducted by the National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education) ..." (33)
Lobbies seeking to reform drug policies and to legalize marijuana also preoccupy themselves with adolescent drug use. For example, the Marijuana Policy Project refers constantly to drug use surveys to argue that ONDCP's "War on Drugs" has failed because "the prohibition of marijuana in the United States has not curtailed adolescent marijuana use." (4)
A reported increase in student drug use can mean the end for drug education programs, as shown by the abandonment of the 1970s pharmacological education, (5,6) and the 1990s impetus to curtail Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE) programs. (7) Conversely, even a small decline in student drug use is cited as evidence of policy success. For example, the claim that random drug testing of students by school authorities results in less drug use (a point on which the few existing studies yield mixed results) (8) provides the main basis for proposals by the ONDCP to promote testing. (2)
Yet, a larger question remains: Why are we concerned about student drug use? Does survey-reported legal and illicit drug use constitute a valid measure of student well-being and justify the importance attached to its levels and trends? Those who attach overriding important to survey findings argue that drug use by youth is associated with serious problems, such as delinquency, school failure and dropout, early pregnancy; greater odds of injury, suicide, violence, and other anti-social behaviors; and as future drug abuse in adulthood. (2) Other studies suggest correlations between drug use and unhealthy outcomes largely disappear when the relatively small number of frequent drug abusers with serious problems is evaluated separately from the larger number of moderate drug users whose behaviors resemble nonusers. (9,10) Monitoring the Future finds students who only use marijuana report behaviors and attitudes similar to those who report using no drugs. (11) The National Household Survey of Drug Use and Health reports the many Americans whose illegal drug use only consisted of marijuana are not major contributors to hard-drug abuse. (12)
This commentary addresses specific questions: Does student drug use as reported on surveys display external validity? Do trends in, and levels of, students reporting use of marijuana or other illegal drugs correlate with or predict trends for other problems, including those most often said to be associated with drug abuse?
Monitoring the Future (MTF), a project of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, has surveyed representative samples of high school seniors in schools nationwide for 30 years (1975 through 2004). …