"Again, I will have to get back to you on that."
That was a familiar refrain for Joseph D. Keefe, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. On Thursday, Keefe jived at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources. Chairman Mark Souder (R-Ind.) called Keefe and a host of law enforcement officials to testify on the "emerging threat" of methamphetamine, a scourge that all the participants agreed is one of the greatest menaces facing our otherwise wholesome nation. Relatively easy to make from a few simple ingredients, meth--a.k.a speed and crank--is a super-stimulant, a favorite of truckers, Hell's Angels, and others with a taste for long-lasting buzzes.
Here's the odd thing: Despite countless "front line" horror stories detailing everything from exploding meth labs and decapitated children to polluted rivers and sex with drainage pipes, nobody could really document the true extent of the supposed crank crisis, including such simple metrics as whether the number of regular users was going up or down. But fear not: There's already an official Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine and millions of newly minted dollars to fight the meth problem, whether or not one actually exists.
The cops at the hearing provided grim numbers to show the extent of the perceived calamity. Keefe said DEA meth arrests totaled 7,519 in 2000, a 46 percent increase since 1996. The agency’s clandestine drug lab seizures, which are almost all meth-related, exploded to 1,848 in 2000, a 504 percent increase since 1994. Keefe also lamented how an organized criminal element based in Mexico has consolidated a number of "super labs" in California, where he said about 80 percent of American meth originates. Somewhat paradoxically, the drug warriors also averred that such industry consolidation is taking place alongside a rise in "mom-and-pop" labs springing up throughout the country. All across this sweet land of liberty, they said, people armed with a few pots and pans and a recipe from the Internet are mixing up batch after batch of speed-soaked mayhem. Rep. Souder called it "a monumental problem for America."
But is it? According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (better known as the drug czar's crew), the percentage of Americans who have tried meth at least once in their lifetime has increased from 2.2 percent in 1995 to 4.3 percent in 1999. Neither number is particularly scary, especially when you focus on the number of people who actually stick with the drug and become "current users"--that is, folks who use on a regular basis, as opposed to snorting it once on a dare.
So how many current users of meth are out there? No one knows. I tried to find out from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. According the latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which includes data up through 1999, some 407,000 Americans over the age of 12 copped to ingesting crank in the past 30 days (by comparison, 11,177,000 smoked pot or hash in the past month). Since the agency didn’t ask that question in its surveys before 1999, it's impossible to generate a trend line regarding current users of meth from the survey.
Do other sources suggest that meth use is increasing? That's what cops want you to believe, based on the number of labs they bust. But a 1999 report from ONDCP hedges its bet, saying that "the statistical measures used to track drug use indicate that methamphetamine use is stable or rising." In the June 2000 "Epidemiological Trends in Drug Abuse," the National Institutes for Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded that in areas where meth has traditionally been a problem, "methamphetamine indicators continued the decline which began in 1998." The report noted that in San Francisco, "all indicators of methamphetamine use are down, except for treatment admissions." Other government numbers show that the number of monthly users of "stimulants"--a broad category that includes meth--stayed basically steady at a whopping 0.3 percent of people aged 12 and older from 1994-1999.
That’s not to say that Congress hasn’t responded with plenty of sober directives. On February 15, 2001, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) announced that 21 congressmen had signed on to be part of his Congressional Meth Caucus. Baird’s Web site proudly touts his crowning achievement -- an extra $35 million in federal grants to beat back the phantom scourge.
What has all that extra money bought us? Even Keefe, the DEA’s chief of operations, doesn’t seem to know. When dedicated drug warrior Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) asked about the demographics of the typical meth user, Keefe said he would have to check before answering. Ose asked what effect laws to outlaw ingredients in the meth process were having and got an "I don’t know." Ose asked how the extra money was being spent, and Keefe responded, "I don’t know, sir." He also wasn’t sure what effect increased education and outreach efforts were having.
One thing was certain, however. When Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) asked if the DEA could use more funds and personnel to continue the fight, Keefe replied, "I will always say we need more personnel."
And that is what the DEA has gotten over the years. According to the agency’s own numbers, staff has increased from 6,274 in 1990 to 9,132 in 2000. Over the same period, the agency's budget went from $769.2 million to $1.55 billion. DEA programs that train state and local cops to locate and clean clandestine labs turned out 380 officers in 1991 By 1999, they graduated 1,132 state and local cops.
Maybe all those extra drug warriors account for the increase in drug arrests and lab seizures, maybe not. The legitimate horror stories related by the local officials indicated that the low-cost nature of producing meth might be persuading a lot of people in rural areas to give it a shot.
But even if that's true, America is not facing a growing wave of crank-addled goons bent on destruction.
The 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that 14.8 million Americans qualify as "current users" of illegal drugs (the survey technically uses the term "illicit drugs," implying that the substances are not simply contraband but sinful too). Compare that with a peak of 25 million in 1979, when the country had considerably fewer residents.
Love it or leave it, but America is far more sober place now than it was 20 years ago. That doesn’t play well with elected officials who want to look "tough on crime." But voters should keep it in mind the next time someone proposes an extra $35 million to stem a tide of drugs that subsided on its own around the time disco disappeared.