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Congressional Fury Over Meth Strategy
October 03, 2005
Maia Szalavitz
Are politicians and the media missing the point on meth?

Editor's note In publishing this article it may appear that STATS is defending the Office of National Drug Control and Policy on the grounds that the aide singled out for criticism last week by Rep. Mark Souder (R -Indiana), chairman of the House drug policy subcommittee, was once Director of Research for STATS. This is not the case. STATS has been unstinting in its criticism of the ONDCP over the past couple of years, and Senior Fellow Maia Szalavitz has written critically here and in Salon about government policy on needle exchange and the data used in its campaign to convince the public that marijuana is a cause of mental illness. STATS has also been highly critical of the media’s coverage of opioid painkillers and the government’s aggressive war on doctors who prescribe such medications, much of which has been driven by shoddy data and a poor grasp of medicine and science.

But when it comes to meth – our grimly photogenic drug scare of the moment – we find the ONDCP more sinned against than sinning. It is clear that in states such as Oregon, Washington State and Indiana, there is considerable local concern over meth abuse, and it would be both foolish and a derogation of duty for local politicians and the media to ignore or dismiss such concerns. But, to put it gently, public concern over meth is not just a response to easily-gleaned facts on the ground; it is also stirred by how Congress and the media perceive and articulate the nature of the meth problem. This article is written from the perspective that no-one benefits from the current climate of meth hysteria, and that the ongoing problem of addiction in the U.S. would benefit more from the calm, compassionate application of science than the rote policies created from impassioned politics.
– Trevor Butterworth

The battle between the “drug czar’s” office and Congressional representatives from states heavily affected by methamphetamine is heating up, with representative Mark Souder (R-Indiana) calling for the resignation of a top aide to czar John Walters, David Murray. In a closed session, Murray briefed Souder and others on the committee overseeing drug policy regarding the Bush administration’s plans to fight meth. Souder was under whelmed, calling the presentation “pathetic” and “an embarrassment.”

The Oregonian newspaper, which has extensively covered the meth problem in that state in a series, “The Unnecessary Epidemic,” stood with Souder in his critique and called for more comprehensive action.

But just what action could Congress take that would really work against methamphetamine? The solutions proposed in current legislation are the same tired measures that failed to stop crack and which still clog the criminal justice system: lengthy, mandatory minimum sentences for dealers.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that these are expensive, harmful to minority communities and ineffective—most famously, a 1997 Rand study of cocaine consumption which found that lengthy sentences are half as effective in reducing cocaine use when compared to shorter prison terms. With shorter terms, more dealers can be incarcerated. Additionally, shorter punishment is also more conducive to rehabilitation—other research found that lengthier sentences produced greater recidivism.

Treatment for heavy users was almost ten times more effective than locking up dealers for lengthy periods.

Making precursor chemicals like pseudoephredrine less available, as the legislation also proposes to do (by putting it behind the counter or even requiring a prescription), might reduce the number of meth labs. But we’ve been down that route before.

In fact, the speed epidemic of the 1960’s and early 70’s was driven by a less harmful form of amphetamine, dexamphetamine. Then, the precursors to that were banned. What did we get? A more harmful drug, made from the precursors that were still available, which produced methamphetamine.

Of course, there were decades between those epidemics, but these were hardly drug-free periods: there were alternating “epidemics” of stimulant drugs like crack and depressants like heroin.

Making pseudoephredrine less available might reduce the number of toxic, home-based meth labs and therefore reduce harm associated with the drug. This is certainly a worthy goal. Nonetheless, it probably won’t touch meth addiction rates, because with demand already well-established, Mexican “super-labs” would step in as suppliers, as has already begun to be documented. Research has long found interdiction efforts to stop drugs at the borders to do little to reduce supply or demand.

So what will work? Curiously, despite the lack of media attention given to it these days, cocaine has not gone away—about 2 million people used cocaine in the last month (450,000 of these smoked crack) while there were only 583,000 current methamphetamine users.

Aside from media fatigue, the reason we no longer hear much about cocaine and crack is that once the crack market stabilized and dealers were no longer divvying up the new territories to sell it, violence associated with crack rapidly declined. Also, all but the most addicted users stopped taking it, which concentrated use among the poorest and most desperate. Correspondingly, the number of new users trying it declined as well.

Meth, possibly because it is most popular in rural areas and is not expensive, has not driven a similar nationwide crime wave, though some heavily affected pockets are seeing increases.

Drug epidemics tend to fade when young people see the horrific effects the drug actually has on those around them— the younger siblings of those involved with crack saw it as “skanky” and steered clear of it.

This is a process that Congress cannot do much to facilitate: it happens when people learn for themselves, not through scare tactics imposed on them by others. Research finds that scary anti-drug ads which try to convey these images to kids are not effective.

But what Congress can do, and should do, but probably won’t do, no matter who is in charge of the drug czar’s office, is fund more and better treatment. It’s not sexy at all: politicians like Rep. Souder don’t much like it and the media doesn’t passionately crusade for it. In fact, media coverage of meth treatment in the New York Times and elsewhere has spread myths about its ineffectiveness.

However, there are treatments that do work. Sadly, they are not usually what is available in most communities—and they are not the treatments that make good TV like “tough love” residential treatments or military boot camps. Nor do they necessarily involve the 12 steps, as is still claimed by far too many “experts” (like MTV’s Drew Pinsky.

Good addiction treatment, for meth or any other problem, involves compassionate support for the addict, effective medical treatment for co-existing psychiatric problems that plague up to half of those with drug problems and alternative activities to give meaning to life without drugs. This is what’s needed to fight meth and every other drug “plague.”

But we’re unlikely to get anything like that from any plan the present drug czar will dream up—and any replacement of Walters or his staff is only likely to bring more expensive, law-enforcement focused solutions that hype the “meth crisis” and appear to be “doing something” but, as with crack, simply create additional problems. The silence of the drug czar and the office’s “pathetic” efforts against meth may not be making a big splash—but at least they aren’t adding to the harm by “doing something” for the sake of doing it.