The Meth, Methamphetamine , Myth

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Hooked on hysteria, the media are big on anecdote and short on science in dealing with the latest 'most dangerous drug'

Whatever happened to crack? The demon drug of yesteryear was all the rage little more than a decade ago, with newspaper headlines daily warning of its ravages: Yuppies were losing their jobs, their businesses and sometimes their lives to the insidious rock, "crack moms" preferred smoking coke to suckling their "crack babies," and we were all just one hit away from being chained for life to the seductive stone.

Little of that was true, but it sure made for sensational stories. To answer my own question: Nothing happened to crack -- it's still around, but you won't hear about it because it's so '90s - - old news, which isn't news at all.

Besides, the media's insatiable craving for ever better -- that is, worse -- drugs has gotten the best -- that is, the worst -- of us, and we've finally found a drug worthy of taking crack's crown as The Worst Drug in the History of the Universe. Strangely enough, it's a drug that existed all along: Amphetamine (speed), or more precisely, methamphetamine.

Natural amphetamines like ephedrine have been around forever, manufactured amphetamines for a century. Speed was originally used in nasal inhalers and combined with vitamin C to treat the common cold, and Second World War soldiers from almost every country fought under its influence. After the war, with millions of doses crowding pharmacy shelves, speed was called into service in the treatment of depression and for weight loss.

Amphetamine use continued in other wars, including Vietnam and in Iraq, and low-dose meth is still available, under the trade name Desoxyn (methamphetamine hydrochloride), as a prescription treatment for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (Little Johnny too hyper to learn? Give him a hit of speed -- that'll learn 'im.)

While it took the media a long time to discover that meth is the very incarnation of evil -- perhaps because of its "legitimate" uses -- they're on to it now: Meth mania has been building for the past few years with increasingly hysterical media reports, which culminated with Newsweek magazine's recent cover story, America's Most Dangerous Drug.

Virtually all media accounts, including Newsweek's breathless story, are long on anecdotes and short on science: We hear of middle- class families -- it's always the middle class, never street people - - whose members have become "zombies" thanks to the dark crystal; we hear police and prosecutors tell us that meth "is an epidemic and a crisis unprecedented;" we hear that meth addiction is nearly instantaneous and nearly impossible to treat.

Despite the anecdotes and hysterical quotes, Newsweek presents virtually no evidence to back up its claims, including the claim that meth is the most dangerous drug in America.

And while Newsweek has transformed hyperbole into an art form, other media reports follow the same "methodology": The Toronto Star warned readers this summer that the Big Smoke is "bracing" for a meth "explosion" that's already overwhelmed Vancouver, and The Province's recent series, The Menace of Crystal Meth, also relies heavily on anecdotes and quotes from police. One of the few quotes from a psychiatrist (which was used as a headline), read: "We don't know how to treat these people."

Now statistics and science don't make for nearly as sensational a story as quotes and anecdotes, but as Jack Shafer at slate.com and the superb science media website stats.org have documented, few of the media's claims are supportable.

Let's begin with the meth "epidemic." According to a 2004 Statistics Canada report, 4.6 per cent of Canadians have tried meth and, while some StatsCan data suggest that British Columbia usage rates are slightly higher than the national average, it's doubtful the difference is statistically significant.

As for teenagers, the 2003 Adolescent Health Survey reports that four per cent of B.C. youth have tried meth, down from five per cent in the previous health survey, conducted in 1998. This isn't sufficient evidence to conclude that a downward trend is occurring, but it is sufficient to conclude that there's no "epidemic" or "explosion" of meth use.

In fact, the numbers -- and the media's meth mania -- prompted the McCreary Centre Society, which conducts the surveys, to state: "Despite recent publicity about the popularity of crystal meth ... the survey results do not show an increase in the use" of the drug.

As to the charge that meth is instantaneously addictive -- a charge previously levelled against crack -- the numbers suggest otherwise: While 4.6 per cent of Canadians have tried meth, StatsCan reports that only 0.5 per cent have used it in the past year. This means that only about 11 per cent of those trying the drug have used it recently; yet if meth produced immediate addiction, the number would be close to 100 per cent.

And dangerousness: The B.C. Coroner reports that the number of people dying with meth in their systems has nearly doubled each year for the past five years -- from just three in 2000 to 33 in 2004. Much has been made of this statistic -- it was reported in the editorial pages of this newspaper -- but if we look at the numbers more closely, we see all is not as it seems.

While 33 people did die with meth in their systems in 2004, only three died from meth overdoses, exactly the average number of overdose deaths each year for the past five years. Of the other 30 deaths, some involved mixed drug overdoses, and others involved accidents or other causes. Consequently, the coroner cautions that the stats "do not necessarily signify that the presence of methamphetamine was found to be contributory to death."

Further, for the past four years meth overdose deaths made up only about 1.5 per cent of all illicit drug overdose deaths. So much for its status as the most dangerous drug.

Finally, the claim that meth addiction is untreatable simply isn't borne out by the evidence. According to a literature review by UCLA medical school's Richard Rawson published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, meth addiction is as treatable as cocaine addiction, takes no longer to treat than any other drug addiction, and meth addicts don't have higher relapse rates than other addicts.

Although I'm sure I'll be accused of it, none of this should be taken as my encouraging meth use. I'd never recommend anyone try meth, but then I'd never recommend anyone try crack or heroin, either. All of these drugs have destroyed people's lives.

However, meth hysteria can be equally harmful. We ought to have learned by now that once kids find out we're not being truthful about drugs, they'll never trust anything else we say. And telling addicts, falsely, that we have no way to treat them won't exactly encourage them to seek help.

Further, sensational drug stories have caused untold harm. In fact, shortly before Newsweek's cover story appeared, 93 addiction researchers sent a letter to major American news outlets imploring them to cease the sensational reporting on meth.

The researchers note that while there never were any such things as "crack babies," the media's incessant use of the term greatly harmed the children to whom it was applied, and now the media are doing it all over again with "meth babies."

The researchers also condemn the media for repeatedly reporting the falsehood that meth addiction is untreatable, and they conclude by saying they're "deeply disappointed" that the media, and some policy-makers, continue to use "unfounded assumptions" that "lack any scientific basis."

Policies based on meth hysteria, rather than on facts and reasoned argument, include the ever more punitive sanctions imposed on meth addicts in the U.S.

In Canada, the recent amendment making meth a Schedule 1 drug in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, while ostensibly targeting dealers, will inevitably lead to significant jail sentences for some addicts, which isn't going to help anyone.

In addition, the hysteria over meth "precursors" has led to some bizarre situations. The New York Times, which seems to vacillate between stoking the fire of meth mania and pouring water on it, recently reported that 49 Georgia convenience store clerks were arrested after undercover cops purchased precursors and hinted that they were planning to manufacture meth.

As it happens, nearly every clerk was East Indian, spoke limited English, and probably had no idea what the cops were saying. No matter: The clerks now face up to 20 years in prison.

This is policy by panic, and reveals that policy-makers have joined the media in succumbing to the meth myth. We're all hooked on hysteria now, and we might soon discover that our meth mania has done us a lot more harm than the drug itself.