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The Media's Meth Mania
August 04, 2005
Maia Szalavitz
The media's insistence that meth is the new crack is at odds with federal data and drug strategy: so what's the real story?

With a weeklong feature on the Today show and a cover story in Newsweek, methamphetamine has officially become the demon drug of the 00’s. As in earlier drug scares, the latest has to be more dangerous and addictive than any drug before, so Newsweek headlined its story, “ America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” An Oregon DA called meth “an epidemic and a crisis unprecedented.” Fox News warned that so-called “meth babies” which Newsweek said are “choking the foster care system in many states,” “could make the crack baby look like a walk in the nursery.”

But curiously, this time, the drug czar’s office seems reluctant to play along. Rather than leading the charge against the new menace, the drug czar’s spokesman told the magazine, “I’m afraid there’s an element of people ‘crying meth’ because it’s a hot new drug.”

So what’s the real story about methamphetamine? Is it an unprecedented “epidemic” and “equal opportunity destroyer” or is this just another wave of drug war hype?

As Jack Shafer points out in Slate for coverage of a supposedly deadly epidemic, Newsweek left out some very important numbers: The number of meth-related deaths and whether meth use is increasing or decreasing. The latter number was seemingly eliminated because it didn’t fit the story — meth use has generally been declining, with 4.7% of high school seniors reporting use in the last year in 1999, compared to 3.4% in 2004. [Note Shafer has it as 4.3% but the chart says 4.7]

There was a minor uptick between 2003 and 2004, with 3.2% reporting use in 03, but the research does not say whether it was statistically significant. The mortality figures are genuinely hard to get, however.

Nonetheless, just as with crack cocaine, at the peak of the epidemic that was supposedly ravaging the country, only 5% of the population report even trying methamphetamine and just .3% report using it in the last month. For the latest “most addictive drug ever,” this means that just 6% of those who’ve tried it are still using it. Of course, this survey may underestimate actual use rates to some extent because it does not include the homeless and those in institutions and because people may be reluctant to admit to illegal activities, still, the same research reports 40% of the population has used marijuana. And as for the notion that meth addiction is impossible to treat, see our earlier article here: it isn’t.

The supposed crime wave caused by methamphetamine is also hard to credit. While cities between 50,000 and 100,000 in size do report a minor increase in violent crime as do those between 250,000 and 499,000, the smallest towns and the biggest cities are still reporting a downward trend and the overall national trend continues declining. And property crime, which is often linked to drug addiction, is down across the board. This was certainly not the case during the crack years.

As for meth as an “equal opportunity drug,” this is yet another myth. In all addictions, the worst cases are concentrated amongst the poor, less educated and unemployed. For example, the proportion of people with a diagnosable drug problem of any kind in the last year is .15% for college graduates, but more than double that — .32% — for people with less than a high school education.]. The rate of addiction amongst people receiving food stamps is four times that for those who do not require food assistance.

In terms of race, meth is a white and Hispanic drug: 2.3% of white high school seniors report crystal meth use in the last year and 2.5% of Hispanic 12th graders do. But just 1.4% of black high school seniors used meth in the last year — and not one black addict appears in the recent meth media blitz.

So why the wave of meth hype now? The “news hook” appears to be a poll, conducted by the National Association of Counties, which surveyed 500 law enforcement groups in 45 states and found that 58% rated meth as the number one drug problem. This clashes, however, with the drug czar’s obsessive focus on reducing marijuana use.

But there’s a money issue underneath it all: Counties are fighting a federal budget cut which would take $634 million from local law enforcement for anti-drug task forces. Is it any wonder the feds want to play down meth, while the counties hype it up? Of course, a budget battle—between two law enforcement agencies that haven’t given us a drug-free America yet and don’t seem likely to do so — is a far less sexy story than “moms on meth…” And so, meth madness continues, without giving us greater understanding of either methamphetamine or the people whose lives are genuinely ravaged by addiction.

Part Two: The Truth About ‘Meth Babies’ will be published next week


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