Press Box

A Meth Test for the Press

How will it respond to a nonhysterical new study?

Has the moral panic over methamphetamine finally crested? After Newsweek demonized the drug and its users last summer with a cover package that hyperbolized in a fashion that would have made the producers of Reefer Madness blush, most of the press has followed its example. The first puff from a meth pipe is supposed to cause addiction; users are depicted as slaves to the drug, as scum, as ticking time bombs; and use of the drug has reached “epidemic” proportions, says the drug-abuse industrial complex, and the press agrees, although nobody ever defines what “epidemic” means.

But as every drug “epidemic” subsides—as they all do—the more honest pressmen confess that their reports overdid it. Take, for example, Newsweek’s coverage of the crack “epidemic” in a March 17, 1986, article. The piece quotes without qualification the statements of a psychopharmacologist who said, “Crack is the most addictive drug known to man right now,” and, “It is almost instantaneous addiction,” compared with snorting coke. Newsweek further alleged that crack has “transformed the ghetto” and “is rapidly spreading into the suburbs.”

Newsweek assumed a rational, post-panic position four years later in its Feb. 19, 1990, issue—but without acknowledging its panic-mode views. About crack, reporter Larry Martz writes:

Don’t tell the kids, but there’s a dirty little secret about crack: as with most other drugs, a lot of people use it without getting addicted. In their zeal to shield young people from the plague of drugs, the media and many drug educators have hyped the very real dangers of crack into a myth of instant and total addiction. …That doesn’t mean it’s safe to play with crack, or with most other drugs, legal or illegal. Addiction is a slippery slope. But what worries a growing number of drug experts is that the cry of wolf about instant addiction may backfire.

Today’s publication of a 41-page report by the Soros-funded Sentencing Project, “The Next Big Thing: Methamphetamine in the United States,” may inject a dose of skepticism into the meth discussion. And if we’re lucky, that skepticism might percolate down to the press.

Written by Ryan S. King, the report begins by agreeing with the moral-panic crowd that meth “is a dangerous drug.”

“Over time, methamphetamine abuse can result in the deterioration of physical and mental capacities, the dissolving of family ties, diminished employment prospects, and a lifetime spent cycling through the criminal justice system,” King continues.

Having covered that base, King presents his key findings:

Meth is among the least commonly used drugs. Rates of methamphetamine use have remained stable since 1999.Rates of methamphetamine use by high school students have declined since 1999. Methamphetamine use remains a rare occurrence in most of the United States, but exhibits higher rates of use in selected areas.Drug treatment has demonstrated to be effective in combating methamphetamine addiction.Misleading media reports of a methamphetamine “epidemic” have hindered the development of a rational policy response to the problem.

King accuses the press as well as government of exaggerating the prevalence and consequences of meth use while underplaying successes in treatment. Calling for a rational methamphetamine policy, he blames the press for constructing a “boogeyman” out of the drug. He trashes the shameful Newsweek cover story for stating with no evidence that meth has “quietly marched across the country and up the socioeconomic ladder.” The New York TimesFox Butterfield gets the treatment for a 2004 story in which he quotes, without qualification, a cop who says,Meth makes crack look like child’s play, both in terms of what it does to the body and how hard it is to get off.” (First, it’s not true, and second, what sort of journalist quotes a cop as a medical authority?) And Amit R. Paley’s March 19, 2006, Washington Post story, “The Next Crack Cocaine?” previously denounced in my column, suffers the King treatment.

The press, he concludes, tends to rubber-stamp studies that perpetuate the myth of the meth epidemic without pausing to analyze the data or the underlying arguments. (Disclosure: King’s report favorably cites a meth piece I wrote, but I’ve never met or spoken with him.)

Is King’s report the final word on meth? Obviously not. UCLA meth researcher Richard A. Rawson believes that “nobody west of Ohio or south of Chicago” regards meth as a “manufactured epidemic” and a product of “media hype.” After reading King’s paper, he writes via e-mail:

Meth has been a major public health problem here [southern California] almost 20 years. Data from San Diego, one of the places with the longest standing meth problems reported data about three months ago in California. The problem there, according to all indicators is worse today than ever. Meth is not going away. Once it gets into a community, it stays. …I wish people from New York and Washington who think that meth is a pseudo problem would spend some time in Indiana, Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, etc. I think if you talked with the workers in foster care programs, dentists, mental health workers, ob-gyns, etc.—not politicians and police chiefs, trying to use the hype for more funding—the real workers, you would begin to wonder about the accuracy of the epidemiological reports from East Coast experts.

As the most reasonable guy at the party, I find wisdom in both King and Rawson, although I beg reporters and policy analysts to avoid dentists in their fact-finding tours. Most of them seem to think “acids” and “chemicals” in meth directly cause meth mouth. Instead of talking to practitioners, most of whom are mere dental mechanics, reporters and policy analysts should consult a knowledgeable professor of dentistry. (If you need such a referral, drop me an e-mail.)

I don’t expect to agree with every meth story published, but from today forward I will expect reporters covering the meth mess to perform the simple due diligence of ringing up King at the Sentencing Project for a skeptical take before filing. It goes without saying that they should talk to Rawson, too.

I’ll be watching.


Source note: Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine’s book Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justices busted Newsweek for the crack  rowback discussed above. I cite them here rather then there because 1) I credited them in a previous column and 2) I didn’t want to slow down the paragraph with attribution. Observed any good rowback yourself lately? Send e-mail to with all the details. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)