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What's going on with meth?

October 1, 2006
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Experts reach different conclusions about the drug's impact on the nation

In the ongoing saga around drug abuse in the United States, a particularly curious debate has arisen around one drug in particular: methamphetamine. Is meth abuse, which has cut a swath among such social groups as rural youth and urban gay men, reaching crisis proportions? Or is it actually declining? And is meth significantly different from other drugs? Enough that it should be treated differently from a policy standpoint?

The debate swirling around meth reached a new point in June, when the Sentencing Project, a not-for-profit advocacy organization, released a report titled The Next Big Thing? Methamphetamine in the United States. The report, according to a release, “reveals that methamphetamine is actually one of the rarest of illegal drugs used, with its use declining among youth, stabilizing among adults and demonstrating no increase in first-time users.” The report's findings include:

  • Meth is among the least commonly used drugs.

  • Meth remains a rare occurrence throughout most of the country and is not indicative of a nationwide problem.

  • Meth use is declining among our nation's youth.

  • Drug treatment programs are highly effective in combating meth addiction.

Asked why his organization undertook this study, Ryan S. King, the report's author and a Sentencing Project policy analyst, says, “The media have exaggerated the prevalence of the drug, as well as distorted its receptivity to treatment. We're saying it's not an epidemic, and the way the media has portrayed this on a national level is distorted. And media coverage has a direct consequence for national drug policy. We would like policy to be evidence-based rather than fueled by exaggeration and rhetoric.”

In fact, recent statistical reports from Quest Diagnostics, a leading employer drug-testing firm, seem to indicate declining meth use among corporate employees, along with other drugs. “When we looked at the testing data overall, we found this spring that workplace drug use has fallen to its lowest level since we began testing in 1988,” says company spokesperson Jennifer Somers. “If you look at the 2005 drug testing index, we can say that drug use has come to a 17-year low. That's quite significant.”

Somers adds, “There have been significant declines in methamphetamine drug-test positives. Those positives declined from 0.33% in 2004 to 0.26% in 2005, and then to 0.18% in the first six months of 2006.” That's a 31% decrease in the first six months of 2006 over 2005 levels, she notes.

Differing Points of View

Such statistics and claims of decreasing meth use seem to herald good news. Yet the federal government reported in February that the proportion of admissions to publicly funded substance abuse treatment facilities for primarily abuse of meth/amphetamines and other stimulants increased from 3 to 8% between 1994 and 2004. Thus, some experts and policy makers harbor serious doubts about claims of decreasing meth use. Some even contend that meth use patterns are different enough from those of other drugs that statistics might not reflect what is happening in society.

One expert who remains deeply concerned about meth is Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). To begin with, says Dr. Volkow, “If you're addicted to methamphetamine, the likelihood that you're going to maintain employment is highly unlikely. It really erodes a person's overall health and mental health. The people we're seeing for methamphetamine are mostly jobless.” As a result, she says, one could interpret statistics from commercial testing labs as indicating, in fact, that more individuals are dropping out of the workplace as they succumb to drug addiction.

More broadly, Dr. Volkow contends that “Our ability to impact methamphetamine is definitely not growing” and meth use might be intensifying among certain groups of users.

“It actually has been very difficult to pinpoint” precisely whether meth abuse is increasing, holding steady, or dropping, Dr. Volkow concedes, “because our usual surveys have not had the sensitivity to pick up change on methamphetamine use. There's no evidence from the surveys themselves that methamphetamine use is up. However, we're seeing an increase in emergency room visits related to meth, and an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for meth. And there's some indication of an increase in the number of people being incarcerated for meth-related reasons.”

What is clear, Dr. Volkow says, is that “The impact in terms of medical interventions and incarcerations is greater” than in the past for meth. “Also, the way people are taking methamphetamine is more dangerous than ten years ago. Initially, it was mostly consumed in tablet form orally, or they were snorting it. Now they're smoking it, which makes for much more potent effects. It's more potent in terms of the speed at which it can induce addiction, as well as in terms of its neurotoxic effects.”

Dr. Volkow testified on her views in recent public hearings held by the U.S. House's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, chaired by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). Marc Wheat, staff director and chief counsel to the subcommittee, cites Dr. Volkow's testimony as being the kind of articulate, knowledgeable analysis most needed at a time when, he says, meth use is rocking regions such as Indiana's Third District, which Souder represents. Wheat strongly disputes some of the fundamental assumptions and conclusions of the Sentencing Project's report, and states forcefully that he believes meth is a serious and growing crisis.