Emerging Drug Problems:

Despite Changes in Detection and Response Capability, Concerns Remain

HEHS-98-130: Published: Jul 20, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 1998.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Janet Heinrich
(202) 512-7250
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the efforts of the federal public health agencies to detect the spread of drug use in the United States and their ability to respond to potential drug crises, focusing on: (1) how the public health service agencies have detected and responded to the crack cocaine epidemic; (2) any changes made to improve the nation's drug detection and response capability; and (3) any remaining issues that could compromise the nation's ability to detect and respond to emerging drug problems.

GAO noted that: (1) despite certain limitations in its sources of information, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) was able to track the use of a number of illicit drugs, including cocaine, during the late 1970s and early 1980s; (2) two drug detection mechanisms NIDA used as a part of that effort helped detect the emergence of crack--a smokable form of cocaine; (3) NIDA had become aware of the rapid spread of crack in 17 metropolitan areas by 1986, but the prevalence of crack use in the national household population was not known until the late 1980s; (4) federal public health agencies primarily directed their response efforts to the problem of cocaine and drug abuse in general, rather than to crack specifically; (5) the response, orchestrated largely by NIDA, focused primarily on drug abuse research and education; (6) the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration provided funding to state and local entities for substance abuse prevention and treatment services through the federal block grant program during the 1980s; (7) following the height of the crack epidemic around 1985, concerns were raised in Congress about efforts to detect and respond to the problem--in particular about the timeliness and accuracy of drug use data, lack of data on certain populations and geographic areas, limited availability of certain treatment programs, limited monitoring of the block grant program, and lack of a coordinated national drug control strategy; (8) in response, the responsible federal agencies made changes to improve drug detection capability--changes that included adding new detection mechanisms; (9) also, to help strengthen the federal response to drug problems, Congress legislated changes in the organization of the Department of Health and Human Services' major drug control agencies: the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was created as a separate agency to focus on prevention and treatment services, and, to emphasize its research focus, NIDA was moved to the National Institutes of Health; (10) in addition, Congress created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop a national drug control strategy and coordinate the national drug control effort; (11) despite these changes, concerns remain about the nation's ability to detect and respond to emerging drug problems; (12) ONDCP established a group to study the use of drug data that has recommended ways to improve the nation's drug data collection system; and (13) in addition, experts agree on the need for an overall strategy among key drug control agencies for managing emerging drug problems.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ONDCP and other Federal agencies have made substantial progress in implementing recommendations to improve the completeness, accuracy, and overall usefulness of data generated by the nation's drug data collection mechanisms. For example, consistent with recommendations, ONDCP and the Drug Enforcement Administration contracted RAND to improve and update information in existing data systems on the price and purity of illicit drugs. Also, ONDCP is working with the National Institute of Justice to expand research on the effectiveness of law enforcement activities and to redesign the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program. ONDCP also has been working with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to improve their data systems to identify and track emerging drug problems.

    Recommendation: To improve the nation's drug use detection and response capability, the Director, ONDCP, should implement additional recommended changes that would improve the completeness, accuracy, and overall usefulness of data generated by the nation's drug data collection mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Office of National Drug Control Policy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to ONDCP, it has pursued a systematic research agenda to improve federal drug data collection, including determining what data should be collected and developing a systematic approach for gathering, analyzing, and disseminating information. ONDCP has worked close with its federal partners to increase the federal government's ability to address critical policy questions through improved data collection and research efforts. ONDCP sees its actions as ongoing. Among these efforts, ONDCP has supported the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's expansion and redesign of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. ONDCP also requested that questions be added to the survey that would provide an improved estimate of the drug treatment gap. Additionally, ONDCP's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program is implementing a new performance management system that includes the identification, collection/validation, and analysis of data sets essential to measuring the program's performance. ONDCP is also working with other federal agencies such as the National Institute of Justice and the National Institute on Drug Abuse to improve existing data collection systems.

    Recommendation: To improve the nation's drug use detection and response capability, the Director, ONDCP, should take action to further improve the federal drug data collection system by determining what data should be collected and developing a systematic approach for gathering, analyzing, and disseminating information.

    Agency Affected: Office of National Drug Control Policy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to ONDCP, it is addressing this recommendation through several activities. Annually, ONDCP asks its federal, state, and local partners to provide recommendations on the development of the Nations' drug control policy. ONDCP is working with federal agencies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to improve their data systems to identify and track emerging drug problems. Under its 25-City Initiative, ONDCP is undertaking a major effort to focus on the local drug problems of 25 of the largest metropolitan areas. ONDCP is working with these localities to identify their major existing and emerging drug problems, developing initiatives to address them, and monitoring appropriate data systems to track successes.

    Recommendation: To improve the nation's drug use detection and response capability, the Director, ONDCP, should develop a defined strategy for determining the timing, magnitude, and nature of actions needed to appropriately respond to potential drug crises or epidemics, taking into consideration that emerging drug problems surface as local phenomena.

    Agency Affected: Office of National Drug Control Policy

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 15, 2016

Sep 14, 2016

Sep 12, 2016

Sep 9, 2016

Sep 6, 2016

Aug 31, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here