Drug Use Surveys: Types & Accuracy

Instructor: Leanne White

Leanne has a master's degree and an independent licensure in chemical dependency counseling. She has extended experience in corrections and post-secondary education.

Drug use in the present time is not what it was 40 years ago, and we know this because of drug use surveys. This lesson discusses how drug use surveys are utilized to track the ever-changing trends and why the results are important for adolescents, parents, educators, and policy makers.

Keeping Up With the Times

Drug use is a nationwide issue and it has been for decades. However, adolescent drug use is far from what it was 50 years ago, or even ten years ago. As time progresses, so does drug use and, unfortunately, it won't ever stop evolving. Because drug use continues to change, it is imperative that parents, educators, policy makers, and treatment professionals keep up with the changes.

In order to do so, drug use surveys are administered to students, parents, teachers, and citizens within schools and the community. Information collected from drug use surveys is used to influence policies and programs, as well as to educate parents, teachers, communities, and policy makers on current trends.

Drug Use Surveys

Three of the most common drug use surveys utilized today are the Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF), the PRIDE Survey, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The table below includes information on each survey, including when the survey was developed, the targeted population of each survey, and the utilization of results.

Monitoring the Future Survey PRIDE Survey National Survey on Drug Use and Health
Developed in 1975 Developed in 1982 Developed in 1971
Targets adolescent substance use Targets adolescent substance use and other related factors (e.g. gangs, bullying) Targets adolescent and adult substance use and mental health problems
Administered to students in public/private schools Administered to students, parents, teachers, and faculty in schools Administered in randomly selected households by a trained interviewer
Used to monitor how adolescents' behavior, attitudes, and beliefs have changed over time to track progress towards health goals and the White House Strategy on Drug Abuse Used to monitor drug use trends as well as to get feedback from parents and educators to ensure productive learning Used to obtain statistics on substance use and participation in treatment. Results used for research, grant proposals/funding for drug prevention and treatment programs
45,473 students participated in 2016 70,000 students have participated as of 2012 70,000 participate annually

Quality of Drug Use Surveys

Major policies and programs are influenced by the results of national drug use surveys, which means the quality of these surveys is very important. There are several factors that affect the validity (how true they are) and reliability (how much they can be trusted) of drug use surveys. The biggest concern for self-administered surveys is the likelihood of under-reporting. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted a study in 2001 and found that a significant portion of the sample under-reported drug use, evidenced by urine screens. Fear of getting in trouble, misunderstanding the question, lack of care for the survey, and memory failure are all reasons why under-reporting is common on drug-use surveys.

Additionally, updating drug use surveys periodically is vital to their quality. As new drugs become available and other drugs become less prevalent, updates to the surveys are needed. For example, K2/Posh/Spice (synthetic marijuana) has become more popular over the past few years. Without including new drugs like synthetic marijuana, surveys could be excluding a large percentage of drug users, thus making the results less valid.

Accuracy of Drug Use Surveys

The accuracy of drug use surveys has been questioned since their first use. There are several factors that can affect the level of accuracy. Three of the most influential errors include absenteeism of drug-using participants, willingness of drug-using participants, and misinterpretation of terminology.


In all three surveys discussed in this lesson, absenteeism of drug-using participants could greatly affect the accuracy. Reasons for absenteeism could include truancy, expulsion from school, incarceration, homelessness, or military involvement. All of these have been highly associated with drug use, therefore the absenteeism of people in these situations is a major error in the survey sample. If these types of individuals do not participate in the survey, the results may not portray a true representation of current drug use trends.

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