Advocacy Group's Report Attempts to Turn Meth Spotlight on Press
> 6/15/2006 11:20:07 AM

The line has been something of a media trope in recent years: Methamphetamine is spreading across the country like a brush fire. A new study, released yesterday by the George Soros funded The Sentencing Project, has called attention to what they describe as major discrepancies between media coverage of the meth problem and the facts on the ground.

As the AP outlines, the report, written by policy analyst Ryan King, highlights a number of areas where he claims reality doesn't necessarily jive with news coverage. King focuses much of his attention on the question of to what extent meth represents an epidemic:

The report cites statistics compiled by the government to make its case, including a 2004 survey that estimated 583,000 people used meth in the past month, or two-10ths of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Four times as many people use cocaine regularly and 30 times as many use marijuana, King said.

Slate's Jack Shafer, who has taken up the charge of criticism meth coverage in the past, takes up the charge where King leaves off. Calling himself "the most reasonable guy at the party," Shafer hits many of the same notes as King, albeit a little more forcefully. Utilizing little turns of phrase to undercut those who would call for greater awareness of the growing meth problem, Shafer only really ends up undercutting himself by speaking to an actual scientist, a researcher from UCLA named Richard Rawson, who explains that King's report reflects problems and biases caused by the fact that most of the effects of the meth epidemic occur west of the Mississippi.

Thankfully, Mark Kleiman, director of UCLA's Drug Policy Analysis Program, speaks up with some authority. In a post on his blog entitled Even Real Drug Problems get Hyped, Kleiman writes:

Meth is a truly nasty drug: strongly reinforcing and highly toxic, with marked cognitive deficits among long-term users even after they stop. Its use has been growing, and spreading geographically. It hits a population not very likely to use other illicit drugs (other than cannabis): rural and small-town working-class and lower-middle-class whites. That means the meth problem is mostly happening where we don't collect the much data, where the social fabric is already badly frayed, and where neither enforcement nor treatment has much spare capacity. (King correctly notes that meth is treatable; he fails to note that the dropout rates for almost all forms of drug treatment other than opiate substitution therapy are high, and that treatment doesn't work for people who don't attend it.)

How big a problem methamphetamine is right now, and how big it's likely to get, are matters mostly of guesswork. We don't have the right data to make convincing current estimates or adequate models to make strong predictions. But in overall social impact, I'd rate it third among the illicit drugs, behind cocaine (including crack) and heroin, and way ahead of cannabis, "club drugs" including MDMA, and diverted licit pharmaceuticals including opioids such as Oxycontin and benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax. (Alcohol, of course, swamps them all.) And meth is still rising, while the heroin population continues to age and cocaine is on the way (slowly) down.

Kleiman hits many important notes in his piece. Categorizing the meth epidemic as a myth and trashing media coverage is easy, he points out, for someone sitting in an office hashing through stats and nit picking details. His final sentence makes that very obvious: "Media criticism is good clean fun, but it's no substitute for studying the actual phenomena."

At the heart of this whole attempted dust-up on the part of the Sentencing Project is the same problem that Kleiman mentions: we really don't know that much. Surely there is evidence and research on what the biological effects of meth are. But the evidence that does exist is just a scratch on the surface of the problem. The one fact that everyone sees eye to eye on is that this is primarily a West Coast and Midwestern problem, situated away from the halls of Washington. There has also been some discussion about how, if there is in fact a meth problem, that it's been around for a while, and has only been picked up by the media recently. Sadly, the age of a given problem doesn't mitigate its severity. If the Sentencing Project, as Shafer commented, hoped to stir up some skepticism, they may have succeeded. But their report hasn't changed the facts, and it hasn't brought us any closer to dealing with the untold number of Americans who struggle with the effects of methamphetamine everyday.


Actually we know a lot more about addiction than you give our science guys credit for.The new head of the NIDA says addiction is 50% environmental and 50% genetic. The same thing I have been saying for over four years.Is Addiction Real?As to the meth "epidemic". People take stimulants for the same reasons Drs. prescribe them:The War On Unpatented Drugs.Basically our drug war is a war on the medically undertreated. It can't last.
Posted by: M. Simon 6/20/2006 10:59:23 AM

I note you make no mention of those "struggling" with Ritalin, Welbutrin, or Adderol.The magic difference between those drugs and meth? A Dr. has signed a piece of paper.
Posted by: M. Simon 6/20/2006 10:15:29 AM

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