Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What Are We Fighting For?

I'm not talking about the war on terror. I'm talking about the war on drugs. In Tuesday’s edition of the NYTs, John Tierney examines the new “meth epidemic.”

With the help of the press, [politicians and law-enforcement officers are] once again frightening the public with tales of a drug so seductive it instantly turns masses of upstanding citizens into addicts who ruin their health, their lives and their families.

Amphetamines can certainly do harm and are a fad in some places. But there's little evidence of a new national epidemic from patterns of drug arrests or drug use. The percentage of high school seniors using amphetamines has remained fairly constant in the past decade, and actually declined slightly the past two years.
Looking for an example of one of those “frightening” meth tales Tierney is talking about? Look no further than the first paragraph of Newsweek’s current cover story “America's Most Dangerous Drug.” (The link will only get you the first two paragraphs. But if you want to see the article nicely dismantled, check out this piece over a Slate.)

The leafy Chicago suburb of Burr Ridge is the kind of place where people come to live the American dream in million-dollar homes on one-acre lots. Eight years ago Kimberly Fields and her husband, Todd, bought a ranch house here on a wooded lot beside a small lake, and before long they were parents, with two sons, a black Labrador and a Volvo in the drive. But somewhere along the way this blond mother with a college degree and a $100,000-a-year job as a sales rep for Apria Healthcare found something that mattered more: methamphetamine. The crystalline white drug quickly seduces those who snort, smoke or inject it with a euphoric rush of confidence, hyperalertness and sexiness that lasts for hours on end. And then it starts destroying lives.
The shattered suburban paradise, a perfect, albeit clichéd, image for pushing drug paranoia. But Kimberly Fields and her ruined family aside, what’s the real extent of the meth epidemic? Tierney presents figures suggesting that the epidemic is far less urgent than the Newsweek article would lead us to believe.

If an addict is someone who has used a drug in the previous month (a commonly used, if overly broad, definition), then only 5 percent of Americans who have sampled meth would be called addicts, according to the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

That figure is slightly higher than the addiction rate for people who have sampled heroin (3 percent), but it's lower than for crack (8 percent), painkillers (10 percent), marijuana (15 percent) or cigarettes (37 percent). Among people who have sampled alcohol, 60 percent had a drink the previous month, and 27 percent went on a binge (defined as five drinks on one occasion) during the month.
Tierney’s numbers are further evidence that current usage rates don’t justify the hysteria. But hey, hysteria makes for good headlines.

One of the central ironies about the whole meth story, an irony not lost on Tierney, is that meth kills far fewer people than cigarettes and ruins far fewer families than alcohol. Maybe if meth users and producers around the country organized into a more effective lobbying body, they too could get law makers to lay off.

--Matthew McCoy