Sociological Approaches to Drug-Related Deviance

Part 1. Macro-Normative Approach: Epidemiology of Drug Use and Drug Problems

Prevalence Rates

Epidemiological data in the area of drug and alcohol problems are more likely to focus on the prevalence of substance use. Generally, prevalence refers to the rate of existing cases, both new and ongoing, at a given point in time (or during a period of time).The Monitoring the Future (MTF) project at the University of Michigan is a particularly useful source of data on the prevalence of illegal substance use by adolescents (see This project has been collecting data on drug use, drug-related attitudes, and background factors among high-school seniors since 1975, and it continues to conduct school-based sample surveys of seniors and younger adolescents (8th and 10th graders) annually. The 2010 annual MFT survey collected data from more than 15,000 seniors in 126 schools. Student samples were selected using probability sampling methods to be representative of all seniors in public and private high schools in the continental U.S. For a more detailed overview of the main findings from this national survey, take a look at the press release from the December 14, 2010 news conference presented by Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the MTF project (click here).

The MTF survey provides four measures of the prevalence of drug use among adolescents: (a) lifetime prevalence ("on how many occasions [if any] have you your lifetime?"); (b) annual prevalence ("...during the past 12 months?"); (c) thirty-day prevalence ("...during the last 30 days?"); and (d) so-called daily prevalence (at least 20 days in the last 30 days). Although the media often focus on estimates of lifetime use because this measure yields the most inclusive--and, thus, largest--prevalence figures, many drug researchers find thirty-day prevalence to be the most useful measure of ongoing drug use. The primary limitation of the MTF data is the exclusion of students who are absent from school during the administration of the survey due to truancy, drop-out, or disciplinary action. Nonetheless, these data give us the most complete, representative, and long-term epidemiological portrait of adolescent drug and alcohol use in the U.S.

The following graph shows the thirty-day prevalence estimates for 12 different substances in the 2010 MTF survey of high-school seniors. As in previous years, over two out of five seniors report having used alcohol on at least one occasion during the past month. Marijuana was used by 21.4 percent of high-school seniors in the past month, making it by far the most commonly used illegal drug in this age group. Nearly one out of five seniors smoked at least one cigarette in the last 30 days. Aside from these three substances, the thirty-day prevalence rate for the use of all other substances fell below 4 percent among high-school seniors.

Thirty-Day Prevalence, 2007

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