Myth of Meth 

Manufacturing a drug crisis

It’s a story most of us remember, a story most of us found hard to forget.

On Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005, 10-year old Katlyn “Katie” Collman came home from a typical day in the fourth grade. A little while later, around 3 p.m., she left her home in Crothersville, Ind., on an errand to the nearby Dollar Store. On her way, she stopped by the People’s Bank branch and received a lollipop from a friendly teller.

Four days later, her molested body was found, facedown and hands tied behind her back, in a rural creek on the outskirts of town.

Three days after that, police announced the arrest of 21-year-old Charles Hickman, whom they charged with murder. According to the police, Hickman killed the young girl because she had witnessed a methamphetamine operation by his friends while passing through nearby apartments on her way to the Dollar Store.

“If Katie hadn’t been walking by a meth lab, she would be alive today,” the Rev. Jon Pierce said at the 10-year-old’s funeral service, a supposition many others also presented in the days and weeks after her death as the story dominated local and national headlines.

“Too Late for Katie: Town Tackles a Drug’s Scourge” rang the Feb. 10 headline of The New York Times. “The body of fourth-grader Katlyn Collman was found in a local creek after she was apparently abducted and killed in order to prevent her from talking abut a meth lab in an apartment near her home,” according to writer Jodi Wilgoren, who cited the AP as her source.

ABC News entitled their coverage two days after Hickman’s arrest, “Girl Abducted, Killed After Seeing Meth Use, Police Say.”

CNN’s report “Town Mourns Girl Believed Killed Over Meth” ran the same day.

The Indianapolis Star also used Katie Collman as impetus to run its “Special Report: Indiana’s Meth Scourge — ‘If there is a devil out there, this is it’” a few weeks later.

When DNA evidence from Katie’s body failed to match Hickman, however, police were forced to look elsewhere for their murderer.

Hickman, who, according to a statement one of the arresting officers gave reporters at the time, “has the mental capacity of a 15-year-old,” had apparently given the cops a false confession. As police later explained, he gave them four or five different stories, none of which turned out to be true.

Anthony Stockelman, 38, whose DNA did match, and whom investigators interviewed early in the criminal investigation because he owned the vehicle matching the description reported by witnesses who saw Katie and him together that day, was arrested a month later. He pled guilty to her murder and, in 2006, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The murder of Katlyn Collman was the first in Crothersville in 25 years. It was a horrible, brutal and senseless crime. But methamphetamine had nothing to do with it. It was simply a theory police had based on a forced confession from “a high school dropout who dabbled in drugs and spent most days sitting in a lawn chair in front of his mother’s trailer,” as he was described in the initial court documents.

Few who became aware of Katie’s murder in the days and weeks following her death heard the revised and correct details of her death, however.

Meth madness

As recently as last summer, more than two years after it was discovered that methamphetamine played no role in her death, a PowerPoint presentation at a federal anti-drug seminar in Atlanta used Katie Collman’s tragic death as an example of “lives ruined by meth.”

Indeed, many anti-meth crusaders continue to use Katie as, literally, the poster child for meth’s horrific impact. It is but one example of the misinformation, intentional and unintentional, the American public has come to believe as fact about meth’s consequences.

Methamphetamine has been a staple of the American drug culture for more than five decades, and a thorn in the side of federal agencies charged with drug control in the United States for nearly as long.

In the past few years, however, federal and state agencies and administrations have elevated reports of the prevalence and potency of methamphetamine usage to hyperbolic proportions, creating an unfounded social hysteria towards meth rivaled only by the Reefer Madness of the 1930s and the mythic crack babies of the late ’80s, thanks in part to tabloid journalism and a media that favors propagation over investigation.

Make no mistake: Methamphetamine can be a dangerous, even deadly, drug.

Even when taken under a physician’s supervision, possible methamphetamine side effects include an increased risk for sudden death in patients with heart conditions and an exacerbation of psychotic symptoms in those prone to anxiety, depression or bi-polar disorders. With a higher risk of abuse when used illicitly, those dangers are often more pronounced, particularly if a user develops an addiction to the drug.

Meth has had many tides of popularity in America. In the 1940s it was marketed as an over-the-counter stimulant to increase energy; in the 1950s and ’60s it was most popular with beatniks as a rush and housewives as a diet pill. By the 1970s, meth was produced and distributed by the Hell’s Angels and associated primarily with outlaw gangs and speed freaks. The 1980s saw another resurgence in popularity, as the drug found its way into clubs as a poor man’s cocaine. Truck drivers, it is said, have relied on crank for decades as a way to meet long distance deadlines.

But it wasn’t until the Bush Administration came to power in 2001 that methamphetamine became the focal point of the federal drug war and the American public became inundated with misinformation about the actual prevalence of meth usage and the associated dangers for users and non-users alike.

Manufactured crisis

For nearly eight years, the White House Office of Drug Control Policy has maintained, “Methamphetamine, aka speed, crank or meth, is the fastest growing drug threat in America.”

The meth crisis the White House perpetuates, however, isn’t supported by its own data. For starters, not only is methamphetamine one of the least frequently illegally used drugs in the United States, there has been very little increase in its usage nationally, or in Indiana, for nearly a decade.

Each year the National Institute for Drug Abuse, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, releases the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. According to NIDA’s 2006 survey, the number of Americans who are regular/monthly users of methamphetamine has fluctuated only slightly, moving between 0.2 and 0.4 percent of the total U.S. population each of the past eight years. And while it is technically correct to say that the number of meth users has doubled since 1999, the actual variation is less than two-tenths of 1 percent.

The same 2006 NIDA study also concluded that the number of Americans who say they have tried methamphetamine at least once in their lifetime has remained steady since 1999, at between 4 and 5 percent of Americans over the age of 12. (For context, it’s worth noting that more than 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at least once in their lifetime, 15 percent have tried cocaine, 5 percent have tried Ecstacy (MDNA) and 2 percent have tried heroin, according to NIDA.)

Drug use trends among teenagers also belie claims that meth use is on the rise.

According to the NIDA’s separate 2006 Monitoring the Future study, an annual survey of drug use among students in grades eight through 12: 1.9 percent of 12th-graders had used meth within the past year in 1976, 1.4 percent in 1992, 1.3 percent in 1998 and 1.8 percent in 2006 — virtually unchanged for more than 30 years.

In 2007, these studies led the director of NIDA, Dr. Nora Volkow, to admit in congressional testimony, “Neither of these surveys has documented an overall increase in the abuse of methamphetamine over the past few years. In fact, both surveys showed recent declines in methamphetamine abuse among the nation’s youth.”

The conclusion of Volkow echoes the same conclusion another federal agency, the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration, reached in 2005: “Incidents of methamphetamine use generally rose between 1992 and 1998. Since then, there have been no statistically significant changes.”

Defending the Heartland

At the heart of the meth scare is not how many people are doing meth, but where that meth is being done. Part of the current drug war propaganda is the misinformation that meth is an epidemic sweeping the nation from coast to coast and headed straight for America’s Heartland.

According to a 2005 report by the Drug Enforcement Agency, “Methamphetamine trafficking and abuse in the United States have been on the rise over the past few years and, as a result, this drug is having a devastating impact in many communities across the nation.

“Although more common in Western areas of the country, this impact increasingly is being felt in areas not previously familiar with the harmful effects of this powerful stimulant. Methamphetamine is increasing in the Southwest, Midwest and Southeast regions of the United States.”

But the “scourge of the Heartland,” as President Bush referred to meth not long ago, doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.

As previously stated, nationwide, approximately 0.4 percent of the population over the age of 12 uses meth “regularly,” according to the NIDA 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a number that has remained relatively steady since 1999.

In the same report, NIDA states that regionally the West Coast has the highest number of meth users at 1.6 percent of the total population over age 12, followed by the South at 0.7 percent, the Midwest at 0.5 percent and the Northeast at 0.3 percent.

The report then concludes that the rates of use “in 2006 were similar to those in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 in each region” — findings that directly contradict the DEA’s 2005 claim that meth use is 1) increasing 2) increasing in every area of the country.

Here in Indiana, meth usage has not only remained steady in recent years, it is below national trends. In a 2006 SAMHSA report that examined the prevalence of illicit drug usage by state, Indiana saw no spike in methamphetamine use between 2002 and 2006. Additionally, the rates of meth use in Indiana for these years were consistent with each year since 1999.

On average, the 2006 prevalence rate in Indiana for persons having tried meth at least once was determined to be 4.5 percent (compared to 5 percent nationally), annual use was 0.8 percent (compared to 1 percent nationally) and monthly use was 0.2 percent (compared to 0.4 percent nationally).

Other studies confirm that Indiana has not seen a spike in meth use in recent years. Since 1991, the Indiana Prevention Resource Center has conducted a survey of drug use among adolescents at the request of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

Methamphetamine was not isolated from amphetamine usage in the survey prior to 2003, making it nearly impossible for anyone to track changes in meth usage among Indiana teenagers beyond the past four years. Based on the limited data, however, the authors of the report conclude that between 2003 and 2006, “The reported prevalence of methamphetamine either held steady or declined across all grade levels. Reported lifetime, annual and monthly use of methamphetamine decreased among students in grades eight through 12.”

Further, the study found that the number of teenagers in Indiana who have ever tried meth is “lower than available 2006 national prevalence rates reported in Monitoring the Future.”

Weapon of mass destruction

Despite these facts, last September, White House National Drug Control Policy Director John Walters announced a new anti-drug campaign, known as The Meth Project, consisting of advertising and public education outreach to raise awareness about the dangers of meth in young adults.

Perhaps you saw the ads in newspapers such as this one: full-page color photos of teenage models made up to look like meth addicts with infected flesh, rotting teeth and taglines like “You won’t have to worry about a kiss goodnight if you’re doing meth.”

The federal anti-meth campaign was launched “in eight states where meth prevalence rates are high” according to its press release: Alaska, Washington, California, Oregon, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. Apparently, the Office of National Drug Control Policy hadn’t consulted the National Institute of Drug Abuse to find out that meth use in Indiana hasn’t significantly increased in nearly a decade and is actually decreasing among the targeted age group.

Nor did those behind the campaign seem to take into account that the number of “regular” meth users in Alaska (0.2 percent), Indiana (0.2 percent) and Illinois (0.1 percent) are less than the percentage of regular meth users nationwide (0.4 percent). In California and Kentucky, the number of regular meth users is 0.5 percent of the total population: one-tenth of 1 percent higher than the national average.

Like most of the rhetoric used in the government’s response to meth use, The Meth Project is keen on exposing the horrors of the drug’s effects as a means of prevention.

Under “Meth Facts” on its Web site, The Meth Project states that the drug is “highly addictive — it is even considered more addictive than heroin” and “many users have found themselves addicted after just trying the drug one time.”

While The Meth Project doesn’t cite any sources for these statements, they are in keeping with the official characterization of methamphetamine as extremely addictive and more likely to be abused than other drugs. Like the misinformation about a rise in meth usage, however, the claims that meth is more addictive and more likely to be abused than other drugs are also untrue.

It’s impossible to accurately calculate the exact number of meth abusers or meth addicts in America, just as it is for any drug. There are indicators, however, of a drug’s repeated use and abuse.

NIDA reports that 5 percent of all Americans have tried meth in their lifetime. Of those, between 4 and 5 percent are regular/monthly users, meaning 96 percent of those who have tried meth in their life do not use it “regularly.”

This is the same percentage as those who’ve tried heroin and become regular users (4 percent), and much less than those who use prescription medications illicitly regularly (30 percent); it is also less than those who have tried marijuana (15 percent), cocaine (9 percent), Ecstacy (5 percent) and continue to use the drugs at least once a month.

In Indiana, less than 0.8 percent of those who report having tried meth in their lifetime are “regular” users of the drug, according to SAMHSA, meaning 99.2 percent of Hoosiers who have tried meth have not become habitual users.

Imminent danger

Given that the evidence doesn’t support the repeated message that methamphetamine usage is on the rise in America or more addictive than other drugs, the federal government often relies on threats of imminent danger to portray meth as a serious health risk.

Because the facts don’t necessarily support these claims, they tend to get a little spin. For example, federal anti-drug agencies and programs often cite the number of meth-related ER visits as evidence for the growing impact of methamphetamine abuse in the country. According to NIDA, there was “a greater than 50 percent increase in the number of ER visits related to methamphetamine” across the country between 1995 and 2004.

The number of meth-related visits to the ER in 2004 was 4 percent of all ER visits related to illicit use of legal and illegal drugs — meaning meth was in the bloodstream of the patient, not necessarily the cause of whatever prompted the ER visit. In 1995, that number was 2 percent of all ER visits.

However, it wasn’t until 2003 that methamphetamine was consistently tested separate from all other amphetamines by most medical examiners. Prior to 2003, the majority of lab tests listed only a general amphetamine category that included meth, and many continue to do so.

In another example of meth’s widespread abuse potential, NIDA also stated that “treatment admissions for methamphetamine abuse have also increased substantially.” As evidence, the report explains that treatment admissions for methamphetamine were up from 1 percent of all treatment admissions in 1992 to 8 percent in 2004.

While this number has increased, the report fails to mention what the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice concluded in its 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment report: “Treatment admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities for methamphetamine [have] increased since the 1990s, most likely because of increased access to drug treatment and increases in treatment referrals from drug courts.” Not, according to the Justice Department, because of an increase in meth prevalence or potency.

Death rates related to methamphetamine are also frequently cited as evidence of its danger. “Death is a serious risk when using methamphetamines,” according to the White House Office of Drug Policy. “The death rate from methamphetamine overdose has risen 150 percent since the 1990s.”

Unfortunately, the White House fails to mention that the study they cite, from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, plainly states in its survey that the numbers 1) are based on estimates 2) reflect an increase in methamphetamine related deaths since 1995 as more and more medical facilities begin to list methamphetamine separately from all amphetamine related deaths.

In fact, the most recent (2003) DAWN report continues to list “stimulants” as a category that includes all amphetamines, rather than a separate methamphetamine category, in its final tally of drug-related deaths. Of the 45 states and 29 metropolitan areas (including Indiana and Indianapolis) included in the study, none listed stimulants, including meth, as one of the “most frequent” causes of drug-related deaths and none listed methamphetamine as the single cause of death.

DAWN reported, “Heroin, cocaine and alcohol-in-combination with other drugs were the three most common substances implicated in drug-related deaths by medical examiners participating” in the study. “Narcotic analgesics — including methadone, codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone — also frequently ranked in the top 10 drugs mentioned by medical examiners in the survey.” Methamphetamine did not.

These studies are consistent with a report released by the Centers for Disease Control in February of 2007 that examined the causes of unintentional deaths in the U.S. from 1999-2004, including drug overdoses.

While drug overdoses in the U.S. have “increased substantially,” according to the CDC, the increase “can be attributed primarily to increasing numbers of deaths associated with prescription opioid analgesics (e.g. oxycodone) and secondarily to increasing numbers of overdoses of cocaine and prescription psychotherapeutic drugs (e.g. sedatives), and cannot be attributed to heroin, methamphetamines or illegal drugs.”

While the relatively low occurrence of addiction, treatment, ER visits and death associated with meth is of no consolation to anyone who has had a family member or friend affected by the drug, the claims that meth is more prevalent or potent than other drugs is simply not borne out by the evidence.

Meth can be harmful, and it can be deadly — but only for a fraction of the less than one-half of 1 percent of people who use meth regularly and rarely without the presence of other drugs and/or alcohol, according to the same studies, surveys and reports cited most frequently by federal anti-meth campaigns, programs and agencies.

Propagation rather than investigation

Anti-meth crusaders are not the only source of blame for the mythic meth crisis.

The death of Katie Collman is but one example of how coverage of methamphetamine-related stories, real or otherwise, rely on anecdotal accounts that distort meth’s impact on a community and perpetuate an unfounded fear about the drug’s prevalence.

Moral panic, according to sociologist Stanley Cohen, rips through cultures whenever “experts” and the “right-thinking” people of the press, government and the clergy exaggerate the danger a group or thing poses to society.

As Jack Shafer of Slate recently pointed out, “A moral panic about methamphetamine and its users has been gathering force.” Shafer goes on to denounce a cover story in Newsweek that called methamphetamine “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.”

“In a typical moral-panic fashion, Newsweek offered no data to anoint meth as the deadliest of drugs, nor did it prove its assertion that meth use is spreading like a prairie fire.

“Instead, the magazine relied almost exclusively on anecdotes from law enforcement officials, anti-drug politicians and users (current and reformed) to stir-up emotions against meth and meth-heads.”

Slater isn’t alone in his assessment.

After a thorough examination of American media reports about methamphetamine, the national Sentencing Project found in 2007, “These stories are framed in such a way as to support a preconceived notion or theory about methamphetamine, and as such, dissenting viewpoints and critical assessment are seldom pursued.”

“A general lack of critical analysis coupled with widespread reporting of opinions masquerading as facts have resulted in a national media that has been complicit in perpetuating a myth of a methamphetamine epidemic,” according Ryan King, author of the Sentencing Project report.

And while some might argue that overstating the dangers of meth can come to no harm, especially if it results in fewer people doing the drug, there are consequences and costs associated with a manufactured crisis as part of a manufactured war that can be quite harmful.

Perhaps the most alarming consequence of overstating meth’s dangers is seen in the response teenagers have to anti-drug campaigns such as The Meth Project.

In 2003, the Office of National Drug Control Policy commissioned a study on the effectiveness of anti-drug campaigns. Seventy percent of the teenagers and parents surveyed said they had seen the ads at least once a week during the campaign, but “there [was] little evidence of direct favorable campaign efforts on youth.”

In a survey commissioned to examine the impact of The Meth Project ads, more than 50 percent of teenagers surveyed said the ads exaggerated meth’s impact. In one group surveyed, 47 percent said the “bathtub” ad was over the top; 75 percent said the same of an ad featuring “Tim” who lost his job and everything he owns within a month of getting high on meth the first time.

As a result of this type of false advertising, many teenagers discount all anti-drug education and warnings as exaggeration in a “boy who cried wolf” manner, a warning included in the aforementioned assessment of federal drug campaigns and their effectiveness.

Like much of the propaganda the War on Drugs relies upon for momentum and monies, the myths about methamphetamine use and abuse in the United States is rarely based in fact, and even more rarely vetted by the press before it is passed off as journalism.

With more than 1 billion tax dollars spent in the past decade on anti-meth efforts, the manufactured meth crisis, and its reliance on “truthiness” rather than fact, is costing a lot more than credibility.

Notable facts:

-In a study conducted as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and published in July 2007, researchers surveyed 14,322 respondents ages 18-26. In addition to finding that the rate of “regular” methamphetamine users among this age group was consistent with the other federal surveys, the researchers concluded, “Most methamphetamine users are occasional users.”

-Non-suicide drug-induced deaths in Indianapolis totaled 72 in 2003, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. In more than 90 percent of the cases, a combination of drugs and alcohol was present. Of those, opiates were present in the bloodstream of 60 victims, alcohol was present in 23 cases, cocaine was present in 21 cases and amphetamines were present in 17 cases. In all cases where amphetamines were present, so too were other drugs and/or alcohol. None of the victims died from amphetamines alone, including methamphetamine.

-According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of the 20.4 million Americans who “regularly” use drugs illicitly (meaning they have used the drugs individually or combined at least once in the past 30 days): 73 percent smoke pot, 40 percent use prescription medications without a prescription, 15 percent use cocaine, 3 percent use methamphetamine and 2 percent use heroin.

Resources:

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use,” (2005). www.nida.nih.gov

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use,” (2006). www.nida.nih.gov

Substance and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies, “National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2002, 2003 and 2004,” (2006). www.oas.samhsa.gov

Indiana Prevention Resource Center, “Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use by Indiana Children and Adolescents,” (2007). www.drugs.indiana.edu

Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), “National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits,” (2005). http://DAWNinfo.samhsa.gov/

American Medical Association, “Actual Causes of Death in the United States,” JAMA, March 10, 2004 (Vol. 291, No. 10)

Centers for Disease Control, “Unintentional Poisoning Deaths — United States, 1999-2004,” (2005). www.cdc.gov/mmwr

The Sentencing Project, “The Next Big Thing? Methamphetamine in the United States,” (2006). www.sentencingproject.org

Graphs:

Indiana Adolescent Drug Use
Actual causes of death

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