Decline in the Use of Legal and Illegal Drugs in the United States, 1972-1990, and the Subsequent Drop in Crime

By Eisenman, Russell | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Decline in the Use of Legal and Illegal Drugs in the United States, 1972-1990, and the Subsequent Drop in Crime


Eisenman, Russell, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


Throughout history, humans have engaged in methods to change, temporarily, their consciousness. Children spin around, inducing an apparently pleasant state of dizziness. Adolescents and adults will sometimes use drugs, either legal ones such as alcohol, or illegal ones, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, various substances, etc.

Drug usage in the United States has been a continual problem. Even legal drugs can have harmful physical consequences. The mythology surrounding drug usage is that the amount used keeps increasing (Eisenman, 1993). This view is perhaps caused by television and radio programs--both factual and drama--and newspaper accounts, about the drug problem and about law enforcement efforts. The television news may show the large amounts of drugs seized in a drug raid. A drama, sometimes an alleged reenactment of a true event, may show how drugs are widely used and abused. All this gives the public the sense that drug usage is constantly increasing, from year to year. And, the U. S. government has been fighting a War on Drugs, which further keeps the issue of drug usage vivid in people's thinking.

The National Household Study of Drug Usage

But, it is quite possible that drug usage has not been increasing yearly. This is not to say that there are not serious and widespread problems associated with drugs. Rather, it is to say that the estimates of usage may be distorted by all the publicity about drugs. People are often influenced in such a way that they misperceive things, and make erroneous judgments (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, 1974). One way to study this issue is to look at the excellent data gathered in the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse, 1990 (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).

A stratified random sample of U. S. households were chosen for interviews by Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. All people in those households age 12 years and over were interviewed. They were asked a wide array of questions about their drug usage, along with other questions (not dealt with here) about perceptions of risk from drugs, and other demographic and questionnaire data.

The results were analyzed in four ways: lifetime prevalence of drug use, 1972-1990; annual drug use; current (past month) drug use; and, a U. S. population estimate of lifetime and Current drug use. The first three were the results found from the interviews, while the fourth "result" was an estimation based on the other three categories.

Decrease in Drug Usage

The findings showed no great increase in drug usage, legal or illegal, in the United States, from 1972-1990. In fact, the tendencies is for drug usage to decline. Thus, the findings add to the social psychology of perception or conceptualization, since media emphasis on drugs likely makes people think that drug usage is more prevalent than it really is.

Eisenman (2000) found that drugs were only the second most important reason for incarceration in the adult prison system in California (the California Department of Corrections). Crimes against the person were the leading cause of Incarceration. Some of these crimes against the person are no doubt drug related. The offender may have been high on drugs when committing the crime, or may have needed money for drugs (Johnson & Toch, 2000). But, drugs do not constitute the main arrest charge for those incarcerated in California. Federal prisons in the United States, reflecting the War on Drugs, have a higher rate of incarceration for drug offenses, than do state prisons.

Recent Decreases in Crime

Recent national data, available on the Bureau of Justice Statistics web site, has shown that violent crime by adults has been decreasing. It could be that the lowered drug use shown in the present data led to a decrease in crime, since people were less likely to need to commit crimes to get money for drugs, or to be influenced by drugs to do things they might otherwise not do, i. …

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