Congressional Attention vs. The Reality of Drug Abuse
The U.S. Congressional Record can be searched online for more than the past 20 years to see what words or phrases were on legislators’ minds at the time. Admissions to treatment facilities has been steady or rising for the past 20 years, yet it seems elected officials spend less and less of their time on the floor of the House and Senate talking about it. We’ve collected data from hundreds of pages of search results to break down how and to what degree federal legislators approach the issue of drug abuse in America.
Year by year, drug treatment admissions rise while congress pays less attention
As you can see from the first chart, legislators’ use of the term “drug abuse” has fallen significantly, especially since 2001, while more and more Americans have sought treatment for addiction to substances of all kinds.
Comparing the six most common addictions for which Americans seek treatment to their mentions in Congress shows a variety of trends. The most common addiction, alcohol, mirrors the overall trend for substance abuse, while Congress’s attention seems to be on reacting to the sudden rise of prescription drug abuse in the past decade.
Disconnects between levels of abuse and attention by state
The following graph shows the greatest extremes between the level of attention each state’s legislators pay to drug abuse (measured by how often they use the phrase on the floor of Congress) and the reported frequency of people in that state seeking treatment for drug abuse. The states that are colored orange have a drug problem that is not reflected in their elected representatives’ speech; the blue color represents states whose officials talk about drug abuse yet whose populations do not seek treatment.
There are a few items of interest when the results are broken down by individual drugs. Oregon and Colorado seem to be the states that talk about their drug problems the least, while Tennessee and North Dakota seem to mention drugs to a disproportionate extent compared to other states. Marijuana and methamphetamine seem to be under-noticed, while many states, especially in the center and south of the country, mention heroin more than their numbers might justify.
Differences among political parties
The graph below adds together all the mentions on the floor of Congress of the six major drugs of abuse. Overall, Republicans raise this issue slightly more than Democrats, and both parties seem to talk about drug abuse more when they are the majority party in the two houses of Congress.
Here is how different drugs captured the attention of legislators in different parties overall from 1989 to 2013:
For each of the six major drugs of abuse in America, we determined the ten words legislators are most likely to use in proximity to that drug and only that drug. At the bottom right, mentions of prescription drug abuse tend to be associated with legal and procedural terms, indicating that this is a new subject Congress is tackling and writing legislation about.
- THOMAS, the The Library of Congress Congressional Record search tool
- The Treatment Episode Data Set (Admissions), TEDS-A, collected by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and hosted by the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan
- We searched the THOMAS Congressional Record search engine for dozens of terms having to do with drug abuse, and chose the ones that were most commonly and most specifically used to describe the six most common drugs Americans seek treatment for, according to TEDS-A 2012. We chose the single-word terms marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine because they were always used in terms of abuse of those substances. We chose the multi-word terms alcohol abuse and prescription drug abuse to differentiate their usage from those that were not in a substance abuse context (e.g. industrial alcohol, routine pharmaceuticals) We chose the term drug abuse to represent overall attention to the issue, because search terms with the word addiction were often used metaphorically (e.g. “Government overspending is like a drug addiction”)
- We searched every page of the Congressional Record that contained our search terms, identifying the speaker, his or her party and home state where possible, and collecting the twenty words around the search term. We only searched for terms actually spoken on the floor of the House and Senate, not documents entered into the record without verbal discussion.
- For the state maps, we calculated the number of admissions, nationally and per state, into rehab facilities overall and for our six drugs of interest from 2008, the most recent year for which data for all 50 states was published. We calculated the number of admissions per capita of population for each state, and calculated the fold-difference from the national average. (For example, if a state had 25 admissions per million people and the national average was 10 per million people, that state had a 2.5-fold difference). Similarly, we counted the number of times each corresponding search term was spoken by federal legislators from that state between 1989 and 2013 (we used such a wide range of years because when the data is down the state level, the number of mentions per year oscillates quite significantly, so as much data as possible was needed to have an accurate picture). We calculated the number of times each term was spoken per state per legislator (number of Representatives and Senators). Similarly to admissions, we calculated the fold-difference for each state compared to the national average. Finally, we calculated the ratio of (1) fold-difference between admissions per capita for each state and the national average, and (2) fold-difference between mentions in congress per legislator for each state and the national average. States are colored based on a logarithmic scale where the deepest magenta means the state as about a ratio of 100 between admissions and mentions as explained above, and the deepest green means about a ratio of 100 in the other direction.
- We determined keywords by comparing the frequency of all words within ten words of the position of each individual drug to the frequency of all words within ten words of the position of any drug. We used the method of determining the log ratio of frequency in a sub-corpus to the frequency in the entire corpus do determine which words were both (a) often used in proximity to the drug in question, and (b) rarely or never used in proximity to any other drug. We created word clouds whose font sizes were determined by the log-ratio frequency of the top ten such words.