Meth Myths


The "crack baby" scare of the late 1980s and early '90s, debunked by research showing that the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure had been grossly exaggerated, is now being recycled as a "meth baby" scare. It features the same sort of careful reporting that made crack babies such a media hit, including third-hand rumors, nonsensical descriptions of "addicted" babies, and medical pronouncements by cops. Last year a Fox station warned that the "meth baby" "could make the crack baby look like a walk in the nursery." In November the Minneapolis Star Tribune cited a nurse who "heard of a meth baby born with an arm growing out of the neck and another who was missing a femur." (Now you've heard about them too.)

This week, the Drug War Chronicle reports, nearly 100 physicians and drug treatment specialists released an open letter to the news media that tries to correct this ill-informed hyperventilating before it becomes a full-fledged panic, triggering draconian penalties for meth-using mothers and stigmatizing their kids as damaged for life:

Despite the lack of a medical or scientific basis for the use of such terms as "ice" and "meth" babies, these pejorative and stigmatizing labels are increasingly being used in the popular media, in a wide variety of contexts across the country. Even when articles themselves acknowledge that the effects of prenatal exposure to methamphetamine are still unknown, headlines across the country are using alarmist and unjustified labels such as "meth babies."…

Although research on the medical and developmental effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure is still in its early stages, our experience with almost 20 years of research on the chemically related drug, cocaine, has not identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed "crack baby" nor found the degree of harm reported in the media and then used to justify numerous punitive legislative proposals.

The term "meth addicted baby" is no [more] defensible. Addiction is a technical term that refers to compulsive behavior that continues in spite of adverse consequences. By definition, babies cannot be "addicted" to methamphetamines or anything else.

As I argue in my book Saying Yes, pregnant women may rightly be criticized for recklessly exposing their unborn children to harm. But the evidence that heavy drinking during pregnancy causes serious harm to children is far more substantial than the evidence that using cocaine or methamphetamine does. The hysteria surrounding so-called crack and meth babies has to do with the illicit status of these drugs, not the injuries suffered by innocent children.