Meth Mouth and Other Meth Myths

A new report shows how the hazards of "the most dangerous drug in America" have been grossly exaggerated.

Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush's attorney general, called it "the most dangerous drug in America." A physician quoted by The New York Times described it as "the most malignant, addictive drug known to mankind." A police captain told the Times it "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."

Meanwhile, doctors routinely prescribe this drug and others very similar to it for conditions such as narcolepsy, obesity, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If these drugs are as dangerous as Gonzales et al. claim, how can millions of Americans—including schoolchildren—safely consume them on a regular basis?

Columbia neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart explores that puzzle in a new report that aims to separate fact from fiction on the subject of methamphetamine. Hart and his two co-authors—University of North Carolina at Wilmington philosopher Don Habibi and Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program—argue that hyping the hazards posed by meth fosters a punitive and counterproductive overreaction similar to the one triggered by the crack cocaine panic of the 1980s, the consequences of which still afflict our criminal justice system. "The data show that many of the immediate and long-term harmful effects caused by methamphetamine use have been greatly exaggerated," Hart et al. write, "just as the dangers of crack cocaine were overstated nearly three decades ago."

The report, published by the Open Society Foundations, begins by considering the addictive potential of methamphetamine. Despite all the talk of a "meth epidemic," the drug has never been very popular. "At the height of methamphetamine's popularity," Hart et al. write, "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." Furthermore, illicit methamphetamine use had been waning for years at the point when Newsweek identified "The Meth Epidemic" as "America's New Drug Crisis." 

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. 

Even heavy methamphetamine users have more self-control than is commonly thought, as Hart's own research shows:

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. 

Laboratory research also has found that "d-amphetamine and methamphetamine produce nearly identical physiological and behavioral effects," Hart et al. write. "They both increase blood pressure, pulse, euphoria, and desire to take the drug in a dose-dependent manner. Essentially, they are the same drug." That observation helps put methamphetamine's risks in perspective, since d-amphetamine, a.k.a. dextroamphetamine, is one of the main ingredients in Adderall, a stimulant widely prescribed for ADHD. Hart et al. note that methamphetamine, like dextroamphetamine, increases heart rate and blood pressure, but "well below levels obtained when engaged in a rigorous physical exercise." 

When given to research subjects, "the drug didn't keep people up for consecutive days, it didn't dangerously elevate their vital signs, nor did it impair their judgment." Contrary to tales of meth-induced murder and mayhem, "There is no empirical evidence that suggests that even long-term users of methamphetamine pose a threat to those around them." Hart et al. note that "incredible anecdotes are usually disseminated uncritically by the popular press and accepted as sound evidence by an undiscerning public." One example from my book Saying Yes: In 1994 Reader's Digest described the rape and murder of an 18-month-old girl in California as a "meth-related child killing." Yet neither newspaper coverage of the case nor the California Supreme Court's 87-page decision rejecting the murderer's appeal made any mention of the drug. 

What about long-term effects? Shocking as it may be to anyone who has accepted at face value the gruesome images featured in anti-meth propaganda, the drug does not make you ugly. "Meth mouth"—the extreme tooth decay supposedly characteristic of heavy users—is said to be caused by meth-induced dry mouth. Yet widely consumed prescription stimulants such as Adderall produce the same side effect, Hart et al. note, and "there are no published reports of unattractiveness or dental problems associated with their use." Allegedly meth-related physical characteristics such as rotten teeth, thinning hair, and bad complexions, they say, "are more likely related to poor sleep habits, poor dental hygiene, poor nutrition and dietary practices." 

Hart also questions research linking heavy methamphetamine use to brain damage. He argues that studies in which large doses are repeatedly given to animals that have never been exposed to the drug before bear little resemblance to human consumption patterns, which feature gradual escalation. "This difference is not trivial," Hart et al. write, "because the harmful neurobiological and behavioral changes that occur in response to repeated large doses of methamphetamine can be prevented with prior exposure to several days of escalating doses." 

In studies of people, Hart says, researchers exaggerate the practical significance of their findings and fail to properly control for pre-existing difference between meth users and the general population. "The brain imaging literature is replete with a general tendency to characterize any brain differences as dysfunction caused by methamphetamine," Hart et al. write, "even if differences are within the normal range of human variability." 

Over-the-top warnings about methamphetamine—encapsulated in the slogan "Meth: Not Even Once"—aim to scare people away from a drug that might harm them (but probably won't). By contrast, Hart argues, exaggerating the hazards posed by methamphetamine causes definite damage by encouraging harsh criminal penalties (such as a five-year mandatory minimum for five grams), fostering distrust of accurate warnings about drugs, suppressing useful information that could reduce drug-related harm, driving users toward more dangerous routes of administration (as efforts to reduce meth purity, if successful, predictably would do), and justifying ineffective policies that impose substantial costs on large numbers of people for little or no benefit (such as restrictions on the methamphetamine precursor pseudoephedrine, a cheap, safe, and effective decongestant that is now absurdly difficult to obtain). In other words, hyperbole hurts.

This article was originally published by Forbes.

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  • Snark Plissken||

    It's like deja vu all over again.

  • BethanyButlerpu||

    I just got paid $7500 working off my computer this month. And if you think that's cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $8k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I do, , WORKJURY.COM

  • Rich||

    "Meth: Not Even Once"

    "Don't Meth With Texas"

    "Barbie says: 'Meth is Hard!'"

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    "Here's another nice meth you've gotten me into, Ollie!"

  • Rich||

    Beautiful.

  • Jerry on the boat||

    "When Harry Meth'd Up Sally."

  • Rich||

    "Melissa Harris-Perry says: 'You Won't Mith Meth A Bit'"

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    "Dance this meth around"

    B-52's

  • Rich||

    "Meth to Skin -- You Know Where You've Been"

    (Appy polly loggies to Spirit)

    Out.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Also new on the Open Society website:

    Guns, Marriage, and the Constitution

    This conversation with the former president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene, and the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, Evan Wolfson, explores the challenges each institution faced and the strategies they deployed to protect the right to which they are committed.

    http://www.opensocietyfoundati.....nstitution

    Many a wingnut here has dismissed Soros for some reason or another (typically I find out they are just Bush supporters) but OSF is still doing the Lawd's (for liberty) work.

  • Snark Plissken||

    "these ten months [of the Nazi occupation] were the happiest times of my life … We led an adventurous life and we had fun together."

    Every night Shrieky dreams of rounding up the Bushpigs for the ovens, like his hero, Georgie. Like Georgie, he feels no guilt--for making mommy wash his sticky sheets.

    soros.org

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    So a lifetime of fighting fascism will never make up for what he had to do as a 14 year old?

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    Fighting fascism? Is that what you call what he does?

    Ignorance is strength!

  • So very tired||

    He didn't write that when he was 14 fuckwit.

  • Ted S.||

    D.A.R.E. to keep kids off Adderall.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    I know a few tweakers with disgusting tooth decay. I think it comes from smoking the corrosive chemicals used in street meth.

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    I'd imagine dental hygiene isn't too terribly high up on their priorities list, either.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    Yeah, they didn't strike me as people that floss on a regular basis.

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    I've always been fascinated with how bad many other people's teeth are. I brush two or three times a day and haven't seen a dentist in years. My teeth are in great shape. Always have been. I had one small cavity before I lost my baby teeth, back when Capt. Kirk was spreading his genes beyond Antares.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Whereas my teeth are in lousy shape. Part of it seems to be genetics, but a lot of it has been the priorities in my life. My Lady had a breakdown a couple of decades ago and for a long time my attention to trivia like dentist's visits was catch-as-catch-can between meltdowns.

    I would suggest that people whose lives are screwed up enough that they are taking drugs (including alcohol) to escape on a regular basis are likely to have bad teeth, poor nutrition, and bad hygiene.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Could be like how leprosy causes people to lose body parts through desensitization.

  • Robert||

    That could work for cocaine, but not amphetamines.

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    Both people I have been exposed to who got into meth became emaciated. If they weren't interested in eating it could be simple malnutrition. With the sugar- and starch-heavy diets many people eat, getting vital nutrients can be tough. That's why they "enriched" bread to begin with. Malnutrition changes the bacteria culture in the mouth, and rots the teeth.

  • So very tired||

    I think it comes from smoking the corrosive chemicals used in street meth.

    I think you didn't RTFA.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    I did RTFA.

    Are claiming that smoking a drug made out of Red Phosphorus & other toxic chemicals. Wouldn't leave a damaging residue on teeth?

  • RishJoMo||

    Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with the punches.

    www.RealAnon.tk

  • Ted S.||

    OT, but I'm stunned this is a story not published on April 1:

    Computer Games for our furry friends

  • Rich||

    The protective cover for the screen shields it from claws, and no major damage has been done, even though teeth have also been used.

    Right.

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    One of our cats watches TV with my wife. I think it's just the movement on the screen; the cat has poor eyesight. Still, all three would rather stare intently and chatter at the squirrels that hang out on our back deck.

  • Francisco d Anconia||

  • Snark Plissken||

    So I managed to drive halfway across Europe, get a hotel and make it back safe whilst forgetting my passport. Felt strange but pretty damn cool.

  • Ted S.||

    Ah, but Europe is so tiny that "halfway across" only requires going from Prague to Plzen. ;-)

  • Snark Plissken||

    Well the traffic is so bad that it feels a traveling halfway across the world.

  • Major Johnson||

    I love me a good Plzen, and I have good teeth too, Coincidence? I think not!

  • Andrew S.||

    I've wanted to drive when I've been to Europe, but I never have. One day when I'm rich I'll buy a BMW, take German delivery, and drive around the country for a while.

  • Tejicano||

    I've been lucky enough to have driven in Europe a few times. I'll never forget a glorious Sunday morning in a rented Audi A4. I flew up the Autobahn to the Mauserwerke museum in Oberndorf just to get a couple questions answered.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Yeah but that was back in the 50's or something, oldtimer.

    Seriously, I find driving in the American Southwest where I grew up to be way more glorious than the Autobahn. Yes, you can technically drive faster, but in general it's a two lane road that often resembles a BMW/Audi/Mercedes dealer parking lot.

  • Tejicano||

    Ahh, yeah. Agreed.

    Before leaving the US I spent most of my life between west Texas and south Arizona. I definitely enjoyed running a modified Porsche 914 or a highly modified Datsun 510 around souhern AZ over anything in Europe.

    Everything in its time.

  • Snark Plissken||

    I did have one good experience on the Autobahn. 7-8 years ago, driving back from Sweden on newly reconstructed highway in former East Germany, totally empty with decently fast car. But in general the Autobahn can't hold a candle to the big open highways of the western US. They do seem to have a rest stop every 10 miles or so, so they have that going for them.

  • Tejicano||

    One additiional feature which I do enjoy about driving in the western US, besides the possibility of driving a vehicle I have built to my specs, is being armed to whatever extreme which suits my fancy. That's my definition of a road trip.

  • Christophe||

    Libertarians and Mad Max. The eternal love affair.

  • Tejicano||

    Ha ha ha! My nickname in undergrad was MadMax. I was driving a ratty, old late-60's musclecar with a big-block and was known for taking foreign students to gun shows to "educate" them about American culture. "Road Warrior" was a new release at the time so I guess it was an easy match.

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    The "good ole days" was Montana's "Reasonable and Prudent" speed limit, which resided somewhere around 100 MPH.

  • Snark Plissken||

    We drove through Montana at the time (~ '97) in a rented Jeep Cherokee on vacay. Reasonable felt like around 70 for us, and I remember getting passed a lot.

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    70? That's the current speed limit on secondary roads.

    I used to set the cruise at 90. Made it easier to calculate driving time at a mile and a half per minute.

  • Snark Plissken||

    I know, I know, but in a loaded down mid 90s Cherokee that felt pretty damn reasonable. I'd previously owned several sports cars including an '82 Alfa Romeo GTV6 which I imagine I would've felt "reasonable" going 100+ in, provided the road was in great condition (the Alfa had about 2 inches clearance, hitting any sort of bump at high speed could be brutal).

  • Curtisls87||

    Prior to Nixon, many two lane roads in Kansas had signs as you left town that said, "End of posted speed limit." Reasonable and prudent applied. On a clear day, with a straight road, and no traffic, 120 could be reasonable.

  • Pulseguy||

    I"ve driven in Europe a fair amount of times. The last time about 4 years ago. I rented a car for 3 weeks and drove around. It was great. I love driving in Europe, even Rome. Driving in Rome is a gas. You see way more. You discover things.

  • justoneperson||

    Can you say researcher bias? This crap is just as outlandish as the crap the government publishes.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Apropos of drug war myths, this mendacious load of tripe from a former Clinton apparatchik is enough to make you hurl: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/.....src=usn_tw

    Remember: prohibition was the second big post-civil war project for the oppressives, right after their attempted genocide of the plains Indians. The same vicious, power-grubbing mindset is still behind the war on drugs.

    -jcr

  • Gene||

    What "progressives" should focus on is leaving other people the FUCK ALONE.

    Agreed, but we all know the opposite is more likely.

  • Robert||

    I dunno if you could say for sure it was 2nd, because it overlapped a lot with carteliz'n of infrastructure such as RR & utilities.

  • Archduke von Pantsfan||

    Something Canada something something hockey game something something Gold Medal.

  • Snark Plissken||

    I had a Swedish friend giving me tons of shit for US losing badly to Finland for the bronze whilst they are in the finals. So now I'm rooting for Canada for the gold even though Canadians are pretty damn intolerable about hockey themselves.

  • Pulseguy||

    If Canada has the most amount of medals, and the most amount of golds, and we got a Silver in Mens Hockey, it would be a lousy Olympics. If we had no other golds, and a handful of bronze medals, but we did win Hockey Gold, it would be an exceptional Olympics.

  • Vampire||

    That's not meth mouth in that photo. They've got the herpagonasyphillitus.

  • Dances-with-Trolls||

    What I've seen with meth users is not so much rotten teeth as missing teeth. Which I've seen plenty of times. Along with other effects in heavy users. The thrust of this seems to be "eh, not much to see here." If the point is that moderate meth use is not that harmful, fine, but pretending that there will not be physical consequences for heavier users is not helpful.

  • prolefeed||

    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.

    Because they're not fools, and took the $20 and bought a bunch of hits of meth with it later?

  • PaulW||

    Yeah that was my first thought too.

    This is why social science is not really science. I would like to see how many social science studies have proven causation. I would guess it is ridiculously low, less than 1 percent even.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Is the purpose of the scientific method to prove causation or to disprove rival hypotheses? Popper argues for the latter and I tend to agree with him.

  • ||

    Uhm, a 50mg hit of meth costs $40.

    http://www.meth-addiction.com/.....ation.html

    Thanks for playing.

  • Robert||

    See, the model predicts the price would be about $5, or somewhere between $5 & $20. But that's only because the hit of meth offered was for here & now, not take-out. Even an "addict" wants it only at certain times & places.

  • Robert||

    The paradox is that the medical user is actually getting more constant dosage than the "addict", let along the "abuser", and is usually having greater total consumption in the long run than either.

  • Slammo||

    UM, you are totally wrong. You sound like the guy on the news that says there was a 1 billion dollar drug bust, when they only found a pound of weed.

    Or maybe your dealer is charging you too much?

    Thanks for playing.

  • So very tired||

    This is why social science is not really science.

    Because you're ignorant?

    I don't get why it's not a science just because it's beyond your capability to understand

    Yeah that was my first thought too.

    No doubt. That's because you're an idiot, and didn't bother to actually look up how much meth costs.

    You should understand, your objections are pretty stupid and don't cast a very positive light on your thinking process.

  • ||

    This is why social science is not really science.


    Because you're ignorant?

    What Social Science Does — and Doesn’t — Know
    Our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound.

  • Christophe||

    Yes, but that means they're able to delay it for a bit. The addiction isn't as strong as some portray it.

    Alternate progderp interpretation:

    But when we increased the amount of money to $20, they almost never chose the drug.

    That just shows how addictive money is! See! It's worse than meth!

  • VicRattlehead||

    Must be the study they referenced when they decided poverty for "all" (excluding government and party officials)was better than wealth for some if wealth creates any inequality that is not biased in the favor of said party.

    MONIES R ADDIKTIVEZ STOP CAPITULIZm!!!111!!!

  • John Galt||

    Paul Erdős was a Hungarian methematician.

  • John Galt||

    Paul Erdös was an extraordinary man who left behind a legacy too large to try to fit into a single webpage.

  • John Galt||

    "Paul Erdös was a machine for turning meth into math."

  • David Wall||

    and theorems into coffee?

  • BillEverman||

    I am curious as to how one legally conducts a study in which one offers people cash or methamphetamine.

  • Robert||

    You get specific permission from the gov't wherever it is. In the USA, that'd be a federal & state licensed research protocol, plus if you're at an institution you need their IRB's OK too. It's a legally marketed drug, so you don't need an investigational license for the drug too.

  • BillEverman||

    Thanks, Robert! Just curious, so I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble providing more info, as this is sufficient. I would have thought it would be more difficult, given how much complaining I've heard about the challenges involved in research involving marijuana. But your answer does help to clarify that.

  • Robert||

    If you're seriously interested and not just curious, I write human research protocols for money, so please e-mail me, or phone 718-547-4165.

  • Robert||

    E-mail address is linked under "Comments?" from Web page linked to by my name here.

  • setTHEline||

    What a stupid article. Meth is really nasty stuff, end of story. All you have to do is look at someone who does meth. They age 2x the normal rate. Not an argument for the drug war, but let's at least be honest about the effects of meth. All of these studies are cherry picked. Confirmation bias.

  • Robert||

    You really want to see a drug play havoc with the mouth, see diphenylhydantoin (DPH, phenytoin).

  • Robert||

    (brand name Dilantin)

  • andersonanderson470||

    my buddy's ex-wife makes $85 hourly on the laptop . She has been unemployed for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $19513 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Look At This......
    http://www.Jobs84.com

  • Pulseguy||

    Everyone I know who has done meth have gone downhill so fast it is shocking. My son knew a young cheerleader type, cute, perky etc. He saw her six months later after she began doing meth, and he said she looked as if she had aged 10 years. Two years after starting meth she was basically ruined.

    Yeah, it is probably true you can do it once in a blue moon and not be ruined, as you can race your motorcycle at over 100 MPH in city areas, once in awhile. But, arguing the risks have been over-hyped is dangerously stupid.

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    Everyone I know who has done meth have gone downhill so fast it is shocking.

    I've known two. First one functioned fine except he had amazingly poor impulse control. Other one was a wreck in no time, but he had long been the classic addict looking for the next addiction.

  • Stoic||

    I don't buy the "it's from dry mouth" argument. I've worked with clients who had bad teeth because of seizure meds that caused by dry mouth, and I've worked with clients who had bad teeth because of meth. They are two completely different things. The dry mouth folks have primarily gum disease, and sometimes more cavities because the sensitive gums make them unwilling to practice good dental hygiene. The meth folks have corrosion of the tooth enamel, particularly of the front teeth. I'm not a dentist (though do read dental records as part of my job) nor a chemist, but it seems obvious to me that the meth is corrosive to teeth.

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    Heat?

  • SnidelyWhiplash||

    Personally, I'm in favor of decriminalizing simple possession of all drugs, and treating addiction as a health issue.
    I'm not sure what benefit there is in downplaying the risks associated with the use of street meth, or comparing it with the use of pharmaceutical grade amphetamines in prescribed doses.
    I've worked with homeless addicts in a major West Coast city for 25 years- come follow me around at my workplace for a week, then give me your opinion on meth use.

  • Pulpgrinder||

    I would refer the author and Hart to the March 2010 Journal of the American Dental Association article that did in fact find large segments of meth users experiencing greater levels of decay, missing teeth, and personal concerns about dental appearance.

  • Slammo||

    I'm sorry but Jacob needs to spend some time in a town like mine for a couple of days. His opinion would change dramaticlly. I have watched this drug completley destroy Lompoc Ca.. I was raised here and have seen it first hand.

    I have watched families destroyed by mothers and fathers so addicted, they would rather tweek then feed their children, or take them to school or give them baths.Ive seen very good life long friends turned untrustworthy because they would steal everything you own to buy another hit. The construction jobs in town have to hire guards during building because of tweekers stealing all the copper before they can finish building.

    I'm sure he is right by physical signs are from lack of sleep or malnutrition, but what is causing it? METH! And yeah, the tweeker didn't take the five instead of a hit, because that's how much a hit costs. But they took the twenty because the can go out and buy a lot more than one hit. Get it?

    I am all for ending the war on drug and making them legal. The only one that makes me think twice is meth.

  • ibcbet||

    I think it comes from smoking the corrosive chemicals used in street meth.

  • Harry A. Ness||

    I used meth and have great teeth. I smoked and snorted it, and did this for a good number of years. I did it enough to miss a lot of sleep and meet a lot of different types of tweekers, and be classified as an addict though I would not have considered myself one.

    People who have never used meth really don't have a clue what it does. It's really not that big of a deal. It makes you euphoric, energized, and social... and then it takes forever to wear off and makes you come down. The comedown is not as harsh as a hangover, but lasts longer. You just feel tired and a bit depressed. It doesn't make you a zombie and really doesn't make you want to do it again, much like having a hangover doesn't cause you to want to drink again (for most normal people).

    Anyway, because meth makes you feel better about yourself it attracts many low life types who need to feel better about themselves- for example white trash. Those kind of people don't brush their teeth with or without meth. You could probably see the same correlation between certain brands of beer. Who do you think has better teeth - Coors drinkers or Sierra Nevada drinkers? Does that mean Coors causes your teeth to rot and your car to magically park itself on your lawn?

    And it makes you not want to feed your children? That seems so odd... a drug that makes you want to clean the fuck out of your house... run all sorts of errands...dance your ass off, makes you lazy when it comes to feeding children??? Come on...

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