Why is there such media hysteria about a heroin crisis? Because the numbers have not gotten higher so much as whiter.
Situations like the one in West Virginia sound off the opioid epidemic siren. Both local and national news carry its echo across the country, citing each outbreak as the relentless continuation of an ongoing drug crisis—one that’s described as having crept out of the so called inner-city and into affluent suburbs and rural towns, causing premature death en masse among the white population.
The Baker Institute’s newly released Brian C. Bennett Drug Charts use data collected by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring The Future survey, along with the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, to chart drug-using trends over a span of 40 years.
The charts deliver a bird’s-eye view of drug use in America and a counter-narrative to the opioid epidemic.
Rice University released a policy brief written by William Martin and Katherine Neill, both doctoral fellows in drug policy at Rice.
“These charts,” they write, “caution against uncritically accepting alarming announcements of drug abuse epidemics by
- religious leaders,
- law enforcement agencies,
- drug treatment facilities,
- voluntary associations, or
- others with real or opportunistic reasons to sound the klaxon.”
Brian C. Bennett is a former military intelligence analyst who uses data to destruct drug war rhetoric.
For years, he’s been a thorn in the side of many drug prohibitionists—mainly because his encyclopedic catalog of drug-using trends poke holes in what he calls prohibitionist fear-mongering
Bennett’s charts appear counterintuitive if you’ve been watching the news.
For instance, they show heroin use has remained stable between 1979 and 2014.
Though there was a jump to 914,000 heroin users from 681,000 between 2013 and 2014, he asks his audience to keep in mind the size of the U.S. population ages 12 and older, which in 2014 was over 265 million.
Because the charts are scaled to the U.S. population at large, such fluctuations look like flat lines—“insignificant in the big picture,” he said—when charted.
The same can be applied to painkillers like OxyContin, says Bennett.
In 2014, the number of people who reported using painkillers for “nonmedical use” in the past month was 5.1 million.
Martin and Neill, the authors of the policy brief, write, “This is not a small number of potentially problematic users, but it is a small segment of the U.S. population—1.6 percent of those age 12 and older.”
Bennett told The Fix that, “When looking at pills, the past year use numbers have been declining a bit.”
But if you get your information from, say, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, who wield a budget of $88.4 million dedicated solely to keeping kids off drugs, they’ll tell you painkiller use is on the rise.
“There was a brief spike in the use of [painkillers] in the 2009 and 2010 estimates,” said Bennett. But he adds that ad hoc reports exaggerate these upticks.
“This helps illustrate an important point concerning reporting of these numbers: the tendency is to cherry pick the numbers to paint the worst possible picture. That is why it is so important to consider the complete data sets when discussing these issues.“
“If you compare the number of deaths to the number of [heroin] users, you find that not many of them are actually dying,” said Bennett.
Again, the data backs him up: around 900,000 people reported using heroin in 2014 but only 10,574 of them died. That amounts to only 1.16 percent of heroin users dying from the drug.
“Let us consider the total number of deaths,” he continued. “In 2014, there were 2,626,418 deaths. Thus the ‘epidemic’ of opioid deaths is greatly exaggerated, and constitutes a mere 0.6 percent of all deaths.” For some context, Bennett said to look to the infant mortality rate, which is currently 582 per 100,000 live births (.58 percent).
But Bennett says local data and anecdotal experiences must not trump the “big picture,” especially when it comes to making sensible policy reforms
As for why there has been exaggeration about the opioid problem, the researchers at Rice say it has to do with who is now affected by opioids. “To put it bluntly, White Lives Matter,” they write.
The CDC has been tracking the recent demographic shift in opiate use. In 2000, black Americans aged 45-64 were the dominant opiate users. Within the last decade, the largest group of opiate users became whites aged 18-25. Because 90 percent of new heroin users are white, the researchers say it is seen as a public health problem deserving of our attention.
“Ultimately, the blame for the hysteria lies squarely at the feet of the government agencies for describing their findings the way they do, and the media parrots who do nothing but pass it along unchallenged—or worse, further exaggerate and magnify the hysteria,” said Bennett.
The team at Rice insists an accurate picture of drug use in America will lead to better policy. “Policies that can deal effectively with these complex problems must build on a foundation of accurate data, not fear and stereotypes.”