Let me be clear from the start that I'm not advocating for meth. I write about meth, because it is the drug of my people. My friends and family are, in part, as, then Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating put it, "white trash" and, again, using his words, meth is a "white trash drug." When I read Brian Hass's piece of meth use in Dyer County, I don't imagine myself as the appalled outsider. I imagine that I'm the neighbor who has to leave her house while a lab is being cleaned up. My heart is with the relative that has to go down to the jail, yet again, to see about a meth user. I know the worry of hoping that someone can genuinely clean up.
But I remain convinced that we're treating a public health crisis — drug addiction — with law enforcement tools and that the tools are not the right fit to fix the problem. I am growing more suspicious that we use law enforcement tools to deal with our drug problems because, as America becomes safer, there's less for law enforcement do it. So, the focus on meth by law enforcement becomes self-justifying. They like to have something to do. Tackling our meth problem gives them something to do. The bigger our meth problem seems, the more important what they're doing is.
I want to talk about Brian Haas's piece, but before we do, I want to draw your attention to the recently released study on methamphetamine from Carl Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist from Columbia University, Don Habibi, a philosopher at UNC-Wilmington, and Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. In short, their argument is that there's been a lot of exaggeration about meth—similar to the exaggerations about crack—that result in the same drug—amphetamine—being treated two different ways, basically depending on who the end consumer is. Kids who abuse Adderall, for instance, aren't warned about the dire consequences of "Adderall mouth." In fact, no such condition exists. Amphetamine abuse occurs at all levels of society. But the young mother hooked on diet pills is not seen in the same light as the young mother hooked on meth.
Hart, Habibi, and Csete have their own agenda, it's true. And I wish they'd considered the fact that no one sits around worried that their neighbor is creating a toxic dump next door in order to acquire Adderall. Meth labs present a unique law enforcement and public safety challenge.
But their number seem solid. And their numbers are disturbing:
At the height of methamphetamine’s popularity, there were never more than a million current users of the drug in the United States. This number is considerably lower than the 2.5 million cocaine users, the 4.4 million illegal prescription opioid users, or the 15 million marijuana smokers during the same period.
Let me repeat. At the height of the drug's popularity, only a million people in the whole country used meth. And now? Forbes looks into it:
Although methamphetamine is commonly portrayed as irresistible and inescapable, it does not look that way when you examine data on patterns of use. Of the 12.3 million or so Americans who have tried it, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 1.2 million (9.4 percent) have consumed it in the last year, while less than half a million (3.6 percent) have consumed it in the last month (the standard definition of “current” use). In other words, more than 96 percent of the people who have tried “the most addictive drug known to mankind” are not currently using it even as often as once a month. A 2009 study based on NSDUH data found that 5 percent of nonmedical methamphetamine consumers become “dependent” within two years. Over a lifetime, Hart et al. say, “less than 15 percent” do.
A half a million in the whole country. That makes our share of meth addicts about 10,000 people. We have ninety-five counties in the state, so, on average, you could expect to find just over 100 addicts per county (assuming an even spread). That means, even in Dyer County, that's one meth user for every 360 people.
Does that count as an epidemic? A declining population of addicts fewer than 1 in 360 people?
Well, not if you put it that way. But now we turn to Haas's piece. Haas says, "The highly addictive drug grabbed Tennessee by the throat a decade ago and has strengthened its grip, spreading to nearly every city, town and hamlet."
But look back at that Forbes quote. Is a rate somewhere between five and fifteen percent really "highly addictive?" And what about the research that shows meth use is declining? Isn't that directly at odds with this idea of meth's strengthening hold on our communities?
Most of all, though, the stories are told on the faces of children like Madison and Wes, abandoned by James F. Mooring, 36, when he was at the mercy of the drug that police, prosecutors and doctors say is worse than anything they have seen.
Then he goes on to talk about the crime in Dyer County.
Hart, Habibi, and Csete point out that this is a long-standing, common media trope:
Media coverage has been filled with accounts of desperate users turning to crime to support their use of the “dangerously addictive” drug. Many articles focused on the “littlest victims.” The New York Times headlined one story, “Drug Scourge Creates Its Own Form of Orphan,” describing an apparent rise in related foster care admissions and reports of addicted biological parents who were impossible to rehabilitate. The paper quoted a police captain who said methamphetamine “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” (Butterfield 2004).
Professionals who deal with drug addicts will tell you that there’s something different about meth when compared with other street drugs. It takes hold of a person, changes them, makes them lose sight of anything other than that next high.
Hart, Habibi, and Csete point out, repeatedly, that this just isn't true. They even describe an experiment Hart did that tests this:
One of the most popular beliefs about methamphetamine is that it is highly addictive, more so than any other drug. So, in another set of experiments, Hart and colleagues set out to address this issue. Under one condition, methamphetamine-dependent individuals were given a choice between taking a big hit of methamphetamine (50 mg) or $5 in cash. They chose the drug on about half of the opportunities. But, when we increased the amount of money to $20, they almost never chose the drug (Kirkpatrick et al. 2012).
I'm not going to go through the whole article and do this tit for tat (I trust you can do that in your own time). But I'd like to suggest that, taking Haas's reporting and Hart, Habibi, and Csete's research together, a much different picture of Dyer County's meth problem emerges.
Haas reports two interesting things:
Rob Hammond runs the 29th Judicial District Drug Court, which serves Dyer and Lake counties. The court has about 20 people at any one time in a 12- to 18-month outpatient program designed to let drug addicts avoid jail and get clean. The overall success rate is about 50 percent, meaning that the addicts get clean and, more importantly, stay clean.
In 2013, there was about one meth lab seized for every 1,000 people in Dyer County.
Keeping in mind that we can expect just over 100 active meth users in Dyer County (and another 100 or so in Lake County), Haas is reporting that the 29th Judicial Drug Court is, at any moment, funneling 10% of meth addicts in the area into treatment and keeping 5% of them clean. Considering that meth addicts are actively trying not to be discovered by law enforcement, this reads to me like an incredibly successful program and it suggests that, if we're going to keep drug addiction criminalized, drug courts like this one are an important tool.
Plus, if there's a meth lab for every 1,000 people and we know there's a meth addict for every 360 people, what we see is that Dyer County isn't riddled with some well-organized criminal machine supplying meth to people at "epidemic" rates. We see that these are rinky-dink labs supplying to a handful of users and when they're busted, those users just find some other rinky-dink operation to buy from, which then has to be tracked down and busted. Yes, it's not great in that it makes a poisonous mess, but it suggests Dyer County's problems are home-grown and disorganized, which suggests that law enforcement isn't "losing" to meth, but is, indeed, doing an okay job of keeping a lid on things.
Haas's story seems to be one of small, but important success, disguised as a tale of despair.