When Flat Numbers Indicate a Rising Problem


As Julian notes, Slate's Jack Shafer does a fine job of dissecting Newsweek's hysterical methamphetamine cover story. Among other things, Shafer points out that Newsweek fails to cite numbers to support the idea that we are in the midst of a meth "epidemic." In particular, there are no figures indicating that use is on the rise, just an assertion that "more than 12 million Americans have tried methamphetamine, and 1.5 million are regular users, according to federal estimates."

There's a reason for this omission: The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the source of the numbers cited by Newsweek, indicates that, if anything, meth use declined slightly between 2002 and 2003, the most recent year for which data have been reported. Prior to 2002, the survey (then known as the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, or NHSDA) used a different methodology, so the earlier numbers are not comparable. Looking just at the NHSDA numbers, past-year methamphetamine use, which was first listed as a separate category in 1999, was flat between then and 2001. Lifetime methamphetamine use, which seems to have been first reported in 1998, jumped from 2.1 percent that year to 4.3 percent in 1999, then remained more or less flat through 2001.

Trends aside, Newsweek misrepresents the situation as of 2003. It's correct that 5.2 percent of respondents reported that they had ever tried meth (again, this number should not be compared to pre-2002 figures), which translates into 12.3 million people nationwide. But the 1.5 million "regular users" claimed by Newsweek were in fact people who had used meth at any time in the previous year, even if it was only once or twice (and that number comes from the 2002 survey; the following year it dropped to 1.3 million). In both 2002 and 2003, past-month use was reported by just 0.3 percent of respondents, which indicates there were at most about 600,000 people who could be considered "regular users," and then only by a pretty loose definition. If "regular" use means at least once a week, the number would be even smaller. In other words, these data indicate that a small minority of meth users consume it regularly, which contradicts Newsweek's portrait of the drug's irresistible allure.