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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10 replies »

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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 from prohibition.
    There is no really good evidence that meth use is any higher than it used to be. Matt may have brought up some good points, but in the absence of better data this looks to me like a “shark attack” story. The same number of shark attacks as usual, but a couple of them happen to get on CNN at the same time and suddenly we’re in an epidemic.
    The solution,as with all drugs BTW, is to legalize and regulate amphetamines, and to effectively ban the home-brew labs by delivering regulated-pharma grade supplies, along with maintenance programs and counselling, to the addicts, for free. Thatwould end the law enforcement problem, the environmental problem, and massibely reduce (you can never eliminate) the public health problem. But that’s just beyond our current system of idiotic, but well funded, repression.
    Whether I’m right or not about the level of the meth “epidemic”, I assume that all rational people can agree that that is a better solution that what we are doing now.

  5. 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

  6. 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 in general, I think meth might actually be a problem.
    I wish the public would take a look at why people take meth. This is an era of low econimic security, low civic involvement, low family stability – and the result is desperation and anxiety. I’ve complained before about how pharma is making out like bandits by exploiting the social pressure on people to maintain a facade that everything is fine. The problem is not so much competition for scarce resources, but competition under arbitrary, irrational, contradictory, often quite absurd circumstances. People can’t prepare to succeed, and at every minute they risk losing all the time and energy they’ve invested to some awful surprise. If we started to place some sort of value on creating stable environments in which approaches like work and planning have fairly predictable results, then there would be less resort to the solace and/or superhuman powers that drugs have to offer.

  7. 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 of the scope of this drug problem. Here are a few facts:
    • The National Association of Counties released a survey this month showing that 69 percent of Minnesota counties reported a growth in out-of-home placements of kids because of meth, compared with a 40 percent increase reported by 303 counties in 13 states.
    • A related 45-state survey also reported that 87 percent of 500 counties surveyed had seen increases in meth-related arrests during the past three years and 58 percent of the counties identified meth as their largest drug problem. In the Upper Midwest, 67 percent of counties surveyed rated meth as the No. 1 drug problem.
    • In Anoka County (MN), half of the about 50 kids taken to a Ham Lake foster home in 2004 had been removed from homes because of meth use in the family.
    • For 65 percent of the kids in Washington County (MN) removed from homes because of allegations of abuse and neglect, meth in the home was a contributing factor.
    • More than half of the out-of-home placements in Pine County (MN) were meth-related, with 62 kids placed between June 2003 and July 2004, at a cost of about $445,000.
    • Thirteen of the 26 foster-home placements in Scott County (MN) in 2004 were meth-related.

  8. 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 park and motel, and had driven up crime astronomically. Landlords stopped doing credit checks on potential renters, and instead, started insisting on criminal background checks. The small-town police force was simply overwhelmed. Why meth had taken root in this town could probably be traced to lack of good jobs. Poor community planning had driven many good jobs out of town, and discouraged new ones from coming in, while nearby communities blossomed.
    And Abby correctly points out that the environmental impact is enormous. Lead is one of the byproducts of meth cooking, and it settles on the floor and on everything made of fabric in the home where the cooking goes on. No laws currently exist requiring cleanup (and, to take the logical extension of your arguments, should not, for this would create a new cash cow), and there’s a secondary epidemic going on in the town now of disorders affecting folks who live where meth was once cooked.
    This doesn’t even mention the matter of explosions and fires caused by the cooking process, because of the use of volatile organic compounds.
    I can’t offer any explanation as to why the statistics you cite show no growth in meth use. Could the study be flawed? Could there be another explanation?
    I fully understand, Matthew, that a certain segment of people, whether because of lost economic opportunity or whatever, will attempt to self-medicate their problems away. And if it’s not with methamphetamine, it will be with something else. But meth, because of its secondary environmental effects and the danger of explosions holds a completely different status. Nobody has to don a gas mask to go into a room where someone was growing marijuana, and cocaine trafficking doesn’t blow up houses.

  9. 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.