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POLICY: Debunking the latest drug epidemic

So it’s now illegal to buy some OTC cold medications in Texas and Oregon because of the fear of methamphetamine abuse. I’ve had to report on this idiocy over at FierceHealthcare without commenting on how stupid it is, but here I can. Luckily for me, the good people at the Drug War Chronicle have done a great piece of reporting on the subject. So where is the wave of meth sweeping the nation and destroying communities? It’s on the cover of Newsweek so it must be true! Well, funnily enough it isn’t happening, and the data shows that the number of schoolkids using meth, people showing up in emergency rooms because of meth, and those reporting in the government’s own household surveys that they’re using meth, is the same that it’s been for 20 years. Here’s another excellent article in Slate debunking the whole epidemic myth.

So what has changed? Well it would be optimistic to think that people have realized the idiocy of the drug war, and the Administration has clearly come up against serious resistance to its stance about persecution of pain doctors and medical marijuana users. What passes for official drug policy in this country now centers on attacking marijuana use — and why wouldn’t it, as there aren’t sufficient numbers of users of any other drug to arrest 750,000 of them each year, and then justify the $30-$60 billion we spend each year on the "War on Drugs".  But unfortunately I doubt that the as misplaced focus on marijuana is the real reason for the outcry about meth. Instead we have to look to the main proponents of the war on drugs — America’s always hungry law enforcement agencies.

Out in the locales the law enforcement agencies of America, always interested in figuring where the next honey pot of funding is coming from, have decided to make a big noise about methamphetamine. That’s why in a recent survey of Sheriff’s departments 60% said Meth was their biggest problem. Of course if use isn’t going up, but arrests and lab busts are, then something else is going on. There are now sufficiently high numbers of smaller home-cooked meth labs that task-forces can be set up to raid them, and plenty of law enforcement types can be deployed to bust them. The end result is that the amateur criminals will leave the market, and it will be turned over to much more vicious drug gangs, probably run out of Mexico — but that gives law enforcement an excuse for even more fundraising.

Of course the fact that the same things now being said about the evils of meth were said about crack in the 1980s, heroin in the 1960s, marijuana in the 1930s, opium in the 1900s and alcohol before that, may suggest that a) the law enforcement solution to these drugs isn’t a solution (and isn’t intended to be a solution!) and b) that we’ve seen this movie before. In some countries, notably Switzerland and Holland, there is controlled dispensing of various hard drugs to addicts. The result has been a drop in crime rates, anti-social behavior, disease, addiction and even unemployment amongst addicts. And those programs are supported by the local police, who for some bizarre reason think that their job is to improve law and order in society, rather than to just get bigger budgets and go on paramilitary raids.

Let’s be real, speed/amphetamine use has been around for ever and most of it comes from big pharma. My father told me that he took speed to stay awake to study for his final exams at Cambridge — I was at a talk about intelligence boosting drugs this week where I heard that 15-20% of college student are taking Ritalin, which is basically speed, to get through their exams.  My dad seemed to do OK, and I suspect that today’s college kids will make it out alright too! (Incidentally, baseball players call playing without taking speed "playing naked" and the US airforce issues speed to its pilots on a regular basis!)

For a minority of users of any drug addiction is a problem (although apparently for tobacco it’s not a minority). But of course treating addiction like a health problem isn’t good for business — when your business is based on arresting people, locking them up, and having the taxpayer fund it.

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drug and alcoholic treatment centerMatthew HoltfredgadflyMatt Recent comment authors
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drug and alcoholic treatment center
Guest

It’s a disease alright, everywhere you go you hear about it. This problem, like others must have a solution. How it’s going to be implemented i do not know …

gadfly
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gadfly

Oh, book rec for Matthew – one of my favorite books ever: Phillip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”.

gadfly
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gadfly

Totally agree that meth addiction is not something that should be handled by law enforcement, which is the equivalent of kicking people while they are down. 🙁
The most astounding thing to me is that there is this massive law enforcement/punitive attitude toward drug use on one side while there is an equally massive push to put everyone on therapeutic, “performance”, or social-service-categorizing drugs on the other. I expect that where the two forces clash, they trigger a howling vortex that sucks all the rationality right out of public culture.

Matthew Holt
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Please note that I am NOT saying that methapmpetamine addiction is NOT a problem. I am merely saying that a) it is a problem made worse by treating it as a law enforcement problem, rather than as a public health problem (and my solution would include restricting the ability of people to “grow their own” in unsafe conditions), and b) the latest round of rhetoric sounds very similar to all the previous rounds of rhetoric about other drugs over the years — all of which have been proved to be rubbish put about by those who have something to gain… Read more »

fred
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fred

I live in hawaii and meth has definatly caused way more than it’s fair share of destroyed families and violence. The real problem is it’s the U.S. Military that is running all the drugs. check http://www.fromthewilderness.com if you don’t believe me

gadfly
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gadfly

I had good friend who was addicted to meth, which seemed to be directly related to his propensity for getting into bad motorcycle accidents. 🙁 At the time I read up on meth addiction in various medical journals to see if there was any way I could help, and I got the impression that the problem that’s *specific* to meth is that it’s almost impossible to break the addiction. Most of the people who went through detox programs reverted back to meth use. I read this about three years ago. So while agree about the stupidity of the Drug War… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

Matthew, I have to disagree with some of your comments. Meth, though not as deadly (dangerous) as other drugs, is extremely destructive to our *rural* social environments. The design of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (referenced in stopthedrugwar.org) appears not to have a measure for meth (lumped in with Psychotherapeutics), so I consider this survey a poor indicator of meth use. The Minneapolis paper did a nice piece on the dramatic rise in social services (foster care) due to parental meth use (with NACO data). Emergency room deaths and lab busts should not be the only indicators… Read more »

Rick
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Rick

Matthew, You’re right on point about fallacy of the War on Drugs, and the dysfunctional relationship it creates between citizens and law enforcement. You sound like a man who has read Peter McWilliams “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I don’t like the idea, though, that you’re using the methamphetamine problem as the poster child for the problems of goofy drug laws. I had the ill fortune to live for nine months in a rural town that had been taken over by meth. It was oozing out of every apartment, trailer… Read more »

Abby
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Abby

I love you Matthew!
I do worry about the after-effects of the meth labs. They seem to be quite toxic environmentally, but these stupid labs exist only because we’ve so radically restricted the supplies from other sources.