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Trac[k]ing the Successful Drug User

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   [7][Back] Tracking the 'Successful' Drug User
   by [8]Steve Silberman 
   6:05pm  19.Sep.97.PDT If you fired up a bowl of Humboldt's finest to
   unwind last night, and still made it to the PTA meeting and your
   Fortune 500 job this morning, there's a new survey of recreational
   drug use on the Web that is targeting you.
   The survey, called [9]Drugnet, aims to track patterns of drug
   consumption among what researcher Tom Nicholson calls "the largest
   population of drug users in America - people who use drugs in a
   controlled, limited way, whose central focus is not drugs, but their
   families, friends and communities."
   By deploying their questionnaire on the Web, the researchers are
   hoping to use the relative anonymity of the Net to access a "hidden
   population" of drug users who would be disinclined to give accurate
   reports of illegal use to face-to-face interviewers, Nicholson says.
   Drugnet researcher John White, who, like Nicholson, is a professor of
   public health at Western Kentucky University, adds that the study aims
   to fill a gap in the available research literature created by the fact
   that many published studies focus on drug users who are in rehab or
   are students. In an era when national drug policy is based on
   prohibition and interdiction, says White, "It's an open secret that
   successful people do these drugs, but no one talks about it... There's
   a myth that all drug use is abuse."
   The third co-author of the study, David Duncan, author of the textbook
   Drugs and the Whole Person, admits that the group is being "really
   experimental" by drawing its respondents from the Net. While some
   studies in the past have relied on newspaper ads or word of mouth to
   cast a net around their sample population, the authors of Drugnet are
   using a modern, if crude, way of marshaling eyeballs to their site:
   spamming mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups. (The group's post to
   rec.antiques launched a thread about collecting 19th century drug
   The advantage of tapping the Net as a sample, Duncan claims, is that
   the online world is skewed toward a well-educated, employed,
   higher-income population - the very stratum of "successful" users the
   study is intended to reach.
   Contrary to media stereotypes of drug users as dysfunctional misfits,
   when the researchers conducted a pilot study for two weeks last
   November, they found their sample of 276 users were "a little more
   socially involved than the average American," Duncan observes - "more
   likely to vote regularly, more likely to be politically active, and
   they read more." And the respondents were "a close match to population
   norms" on a scale of social functioning used by the National Center of
   Health Statistics called the General Well-Being Schedule, he says.
   About a quarter of the respondents said they used LSD, with several
   citing "spiritual exploration" as a reason for their consumption of
   the drug. "It's a well-known fact that hallucinogens can be used as a
   religious, life-changing experience," says White. "People do it, but
   they feel they can't really talk about it in an atmosphere of
   non-charged discourse."
   Contributing to the "charge" around that discourse is White House drug
   czar Barry McCaffrey "spreading the dogma" of the Just Say No approach
   to drug education "as thick as he can," Duncan says, adding that
   studies like Drugnet have been discouraged because "it doesn't help
   you to get grants to go against the mainstream of thought."
   Each year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
   Administration releases a widely-referenced report called the
   [10]National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Joe Gfroerer of the
   agency's Office of Applied Studies says that the study uses
   "self-administered answer sheets," returned to the interviewers in
   sealed envelopes, for the sections of the survey concerned with
   illegal drug use. Though Gfroerer admits that the survey is prone to
   "underreporting" - especially of "hard-core use" of drugs like heroin
   - he disputes the researchers' claim that the Internet is the best way
   to get a representative sample and accurate reporting of drug use.
   "I'm not sure that people would feel more secure reporting sensitive
   data over the Internet," Gfroerer says. "The problem with the Net is,
   you're responding to people you can't see, and you have no idea if the
   study is legitimate. We send a representative to people's homes who
   show identification and explain the significance of the study."
   He did say, however, that if the study was "controlled properly," you
   could get a "very large sample" of valuable data.
   The researchers admit that some Web surfers have expressed
   reservations about answering queries about illegal activities over the
   Net. As an extra security measure, survey instructions urge
   respondents to access the questionnaire via [11]the Anonymizer. White
   says that the research team is presently applying for a grant to
   purchase a secure server, for an enlarged version of Drugnet that
   could extend for years.
   "This is just the beginning of this study," says Nicholson. "We're
   looking at the future."
   Related Wired Links:
   [12]Taking on the 'Culture of Prohibition'
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