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Are Arrest Statistics a Valid Measure of Illicit Drug Use?: The Relationship Between Criminal Justice and Public Health Indicators of Cocaine, Heroin, and Marijuana use

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 16 Issue: 3 Dated: September 1999 Pages: 685-699
Date Published
15 pages

This article assesses the relationships between alternative law enforcement and public health indicators of cocaine, heroin and marijuana use for a sample of large U.S. cities.


It is unclear how closely arrest statistics, the leading law enforcement indicator of illicit drug use, correspond to other law enforcement indicators such as urine tests of jail inmates, or to public health measures such as emergency departments’ and medical examiners’ reports. This study found profound convergence across measurement systems in cocaine and heroin use, but little convergence for marijuana use. In addition to other research and policy implications, these results increase confidence in the use of arrest data to assess variation across urban areas in cocaine and heroin use. The fact that drug arrests inevitably reflect enforcement activity does not invalidate them as a measure of underlying drug-using behavior. Notes, tables, figure, references, appendix

Date Published: January 1, 1999