Is Meth A Plague, A Wildfire, Or the Next Katrina?

Or is it a million times more horrible than all of them combined?


New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says thousands of people may have died when Hurricane Katrina hit the city, which would make it one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. But if we can believe government-sponsored warnings, methamphetamine kills a similar number of Americans every week.

That extravagant claim came to light as a result of the Bush administration's decision to join forces with the nation's most extreme methamphetamine alarmists, whom the Office of National Drug Control Policy not long ago accused of "crying meth." In response to criticism that it was devoting insufficient attention and money to the latest drug scare, the administration has decided to participate in the panic.

"Meth has spread like wildfire across the United States," said Karen Tandy, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, at a recent press conference where she announced more than 400 methamphetamine-related arrests. "It has burned out communities, scorched childhoods, and charred once happy and productive lives beyond recognition." Throwing in another disaster metaphor for good measure, Tandy declared the Bush administration's "commitment to extinguishing this plague."

As further evidence of that commitment, the DEA has launched a Web site, justthinktwice.com, that seeks to scare teenagers away from meth with tactics that are bound to backfire. For example, the site presents an ominous list of chemicals used to produce methamphetamine, including "lye, drain cleaner, iodine, battery acid, cold medicine—and other things you'd never dream of putting in your body." The implication—that meth users might as well be consuming lye or drain cleaner—may be daunting, but only to those who believe people routinely drop dead the first time they try the stuff.

As usual with anti-drug propaganda, the DEA implies that the worst outcomes are typical: If you are stupid enough to try meth, you will end up a broken-down shell of your former self, your dreams shattered, your relationships ruined, your teeth rotten. "Some say it's great, but it's really your worst nightmare," the DEA warns. "With meth, you put your future behind you."

The DEA's site includes a conspicuous link to "Meth Is Death," a site sponsored by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference. The latter site claims that "1 in 7 high school students will try meth"; "99 percent of first-time meth users are hooked after just the first try"; "only 5 percent of meth addicts are able to kick it and stay away"; and "the life expectancy of a habitual meth user is only 5 years."

Do the math (which the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference clearly didn't), and you will see that 13.4 percent of Americans die as a result of methamphetamine abuse within five years of graduating from high school. According to the Census Bureau, there are more than 20 million 15-to-19-year-olds in the U.S., so we are talking about hundreds of thousands of deaths a year, and that's not even counting people who start using meth after high school.

Such ridiculous claims, now implicitly endorsed by the DEA, can only undermine legitimate warnings about the hazards of methamphetamine. The federal government's own survey data indicate that the vast majority of people who try meth do not escalate to addiction, let alone end up dead as a result.

In the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 6 percent of people who have tried methamphetamine report using it in the last month, which does not necessarily indicate addiction but is surely a minimum requirement. According to data from the National Comorbidity Survey, perhaps one in 10 stimulant users ever experiences "drug dependence."

Life-ruining addiction is the exception, not the rule, for people who try methamphetamine. Is this truth too dangerous to admit? To the contrary: Since the reality is familiar to anyone who knows experimenters or occasional users, denying it is dangerous.

Likewise, surely it is possible to acknowledge the problems experienced by those who abuse methamphetamine and the people close to them without insisting that we are in the midst of a meth "epidemic." Again, the federal government's own data contradict this description, indicating that meth use nationwide has been flat or declining in recent years among both adults and teenagers.

The DEA sums up the situation well in one of the few accurate statements on its new Web site: "Discussion of the drug issue is sometimes filled with emotion, inaccuracies and wishful thinking. In many cases, what is represented as 'fact' is really fiction."