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Meth: Debunking the Debunking of the Debunking

06/19/2006 10:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Drug policy expert Mark Kleiman recently took Ryan King and the Sentencing Project to task for their report [pdf] compiling the actually available numbers documenting the extent of the "methamphetamine epidemic." While I highly respect Kleiman's work (disclosure: he blurbed my most recent book), this is an area where we disagree. Media criticism may not, as he says, be a substitute for studying the actual problem-- but without it, I believe improving drug policy and getting better data may be impossible.

Kleiman says that the numbers-- which in the major government surveys on drugs from MTF to NHSDUH to ADAM to DAWN show a small and mostly declining problem with meth-- are misleading, and so meth use can rightly be called epidemic (or, as he phrases it, a "real" problem) by the media in America.

Kleiman says that the fact that meth addiction may be as common as crack addiction speaks to its high prevalence and dangerousness; King uses this as evidence that meth is rare. King cites government statistics showing 583,000 regular meth users; Kleiman fears it may be more like 2 million, but says the data isn't good enough to know.

In a population of some 300 million, whether that's an "epidemic" may be down to semantics.

Whatever the case, meth has not driven a massive national violent crime wave the way crack did-- nor, despite media reports to the contrary, has it actually increased foster care admissions nationally. It is a seriously problematic drug that has caused major harm in some communities, but portraying it as devilish presents problems of its own.

As with crack, demonizing meth can cause many children to be needlessly taken from their parents as those parents are imprisoned for decades or simply relieved of custody because they are believed incurable. As with crack as well, these children may wind up bearing a stigma that does more damage than the drug itself. Or their mothers, fearing prosecution and loss of custody, may avoid prenatal care, maximizing fetal risks.

And this where I primarily disagree with Kleiman. Unlike King, Kleiman seems to believe that the misleading press coverage of methamphetamine isn't harmful.

But what he doesn't mention is how the language of "drug epidemics" and the demonization of drug users it entails drive ineffective policies that he himself doesn't support. When a drug is simply evil and it makes its users evil, the only way to deal with the problem is to fight the supply of the drug and lock up the unsalvageable unfortunates who already got hooked. When the media portray a substance as ubiquitous and hooking schoolchildren everywhere at first use, parents panic and politicians and moral entrepreneurs pounce (and many kids roll their eyes and consequently ignore real risks).

Curiously, both Kleiman and the Sentencing Project recognize that the imposition of lengthy mandatory minimum sentences is driven by the politics of being "tough on drugs,"-- and they both oppose those wasteful, ineffective and heartless sentences.

Kleiman, however, appears not to see how press coverage that falsely claims that meth addiction is everywhere and untreatable (or that it requires longer terms of treatment) pushes harmful foster care admissions by wrongly implying that the addicted parents will never get well.

He also doesn't note that the spate of media coverage of meth and foster care didn't mention that foster care agencies were (coincidentally?) fighting a federal budget shift that would allow funds once specific to foster care to be used for parental drug treatment instead.

Shouldn't that agenda have been mentioned when citing foster care agencies' claims that "meth mothers" are monsters who don't respond to treatment? We debunkers were the only ones to point this out.

We were also the only ones to note that a widely cited survey [pdf] claiming massive meth problems was part of a lobbying effort against a federal budget cut that would have reduced funding for anti-drug task forces. Both conservatives and liberals had united to oppose the funding of these task forces-- which had lead to such injustices as the incarceration of 15% of the black population in Tulia, Texas for drug dealing. Perhaps fear of meth might stop the cut? Again, this back story was only covered by media critics, as far as I can tell.

Kleiman decries the Congressional "rain dance" of imposing lengthier sentences to show that it's doing something, even as it knows it won't actually help-- but doesn't seem to recognize how press coverage of "drug epidemics" sustains that not just useless, but harmful routine.

Kleiman is a subtle and original thinker on drug policy, but I believe he's wrong to attack those who try to debunk hysterical drugs coverage.

What's needed is more creative thinking-- like his support for using mandatory testing rather than mandatory treatment as a way to increase recovery and better utilize both treatment and law enforcement resources. He admits that "organizational" obstacles have prevented this approach from being more widely adopted.

I would argue that a large reason those obstacles continue to exist is that the current media narrative on drug problems precludes rational debate. Over and over, it tells the same story of the latest evil drug taking down the latest batch of victims.

This version has no room for inconvenient facts-- it can't say that most users don't become addicts or that hardcore addiction isn't primarily a problem of the middle classes or that addiction is generally driven by histories of trauma, genetic factors, poverty and/or mental illness, not by particular drugs. It can't get its head around the idea that people can and are regularly and safely prescribed methamphetamine and opioids. It can't distinguish between harms related to drugs and harms related to drug policy-- nor can it admit the arbitrary nature of our drug laws and how they originated in prejudice, not data.

The current narrative demands a nice, neat story of sin and redemption-- where the problem can be solved by simply removing the temptation and kicking the sinner back into shape.

Debunkers are doing a valuable service, I believe, by offering an alternative view, one that questions conventional wisdom and tries to be empirically grounded. The only way we're going to get better drug policy and the best possible data to drive it is if we begin to cut down the myths that sustain this one.