On October 14, I appeared on NPR's On the Media to address press coverage of the supposed "methamphetamine epidemic" in America. In my remarks, I laid into a feature that Newsweek ran this summer that exemplifies what I have long derided as the "new drug of choice story."
Newsweek's editor, Mark Whitaker, wrote to On the Media, chiding the show for allowing me to cast what he claims were baseless assertions. On the Media's host Bob Garfield read Whitaker's letter on air during the October 21 show and effectively apologized for failing to check out my claims. Said Garfield: "Newsweek's editor, Mark Whitaker, complained, properly, that we neglected to verify Gillespie's charge."
But On the Media has nothing to be sorry for—certainly not for airing a segment that questioned the way illegal drugs are covered by the media. Whitaker not only mischaracterized what I said on the air, he failed to respond to serious credibility issues regarding the August 8 Newsweek story. Indeed, his response to my point of view is representative of a sadly uncritical media when it comes to implausible claims made in the name of the war on drugs.
My reply to his attack on my credibility is below:
Newsweek's editor Mark Whitaker was apparently so hopping mad that I questioned his magazine's August 8 cover story about methamphetamine, "America's Most Dangerous Drug," that he didn't bother to listen to what I actually said during my October 14 appearance on On the Media. Whitaker's reaction is perhaps understandable: I referred to the Newsweek story on the supposed methamphetamine "epidemic" (the mag's word) as a "one-stop-shop for, you know, ludicrous claims" about the use of illegal drugs in this country. I stand by my statement.
Whitaker claims I said that the Newsweek story "contained no statistics to substantiate our assertion that it's an epidemic." In fact, I said his magazine's story "sought to show that there was an epidemic but…there are no hard numbers in there about usage trends or anything like that."
The key words, of course, are "usage trends." By Whitaker's own account, the only usage stats that Newsweek provides are drawn from the most recent edition of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health: "More than 12 million Americans have tried methamphetamine and 1.5 million are regular users, according to federal estimates."
Before I get into a discussion of whether those figures are particularly useful, any reader—and certainly any journalist—would first ask: How does one establish a trend about drug use by only citing a static set of usage statistics? Are those figures on the rise or the decline?
In any case, the source of Newsweek's figures undercuts any notion that we're fast becoming a nation of speed freaks. Table 1.1A of the National Household Survey includes usage rates for 2003 and 2004 (the latest years for which full data are available). In 2003, 12.3 million Americans aged 12 and older reported having tried methamphetamine at least once in their lifetime. In 2004, that figure was 11.7 million. Table 1.1B expresses those totals as percentages of the American population: They come to 5.2 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively. So the lifetime numbers are basically flat or falling.
Are there 1.5 million "regular users" of meth? The Household survey finds that 1.32 million Americans aged 12 and older reported using meth in the past year in 2003. For 2004, that figure had risen slightly to 1.44 million. Expressed as percentages of the population aged 12 and older, those figures yield an identical 0.6 percent result. And we shouldn't forget the self-evidently bogus claim that use of meth in the past year somehow equals "regular use." Are you a regular user of liquor if you've had one drink in the past year?
The Household survey does provide figures for "past month" use, which is widely considered a proxy—albeit an imperfect one—for something like regular use. (It's imperfect because one drink or one snort or one cigarette a month—the minimum needed to answer in the affirmative—hardly indicates compulsive or addictive behavior.) So what about past-month use of meth by Americans aged 12 and older? In 2003, 607,000 people—or 0.3 percent—copped to using meth. In 2004, it was 583,000—or 0.2 percent. Where's the trend here?
In case you're wondering, the percentages for lifetime, past year, and past month use for the 2002 survey came in as 5.3 percent, 0.7 percent, and 0.3 percent respectively. The methodology of the survey was changed starting with the 2002 survey so a straight-up comparison with earlier years is impossible. But past-month use of "stimulants" (a category that included methamphetamines and other substances) throughout the 1990s stayed in the same range reported for meth in 2002-2004.
Whitaker also points to Newsweek's use of law enforcement sources to substantiate the notion of a meth epidemic. Cops, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officers are of course important sources, but they have a well-documented history of exaggeration and aggrandizement when it comes to drug issues; their claims always need to be verified independently.
Consider, then, one of the main pieces of evidence included in "America's Most Dangerous Drug": a July telephone survey of "500 law enforcement agencies in 45 states…by the National Association of Counties," in which "58 percent said meth is their biggest drug problem.'" Titled "The Meth Epidemic in America," it is a classic example of a poorly designed and leading survey, barely masking its preordained conclusion in every question.
"As you may know," the survey script begins, "methamphetamine use has risen dramatically in counties across the nation…" More important, the actual methodology of the survey, including the total number of calls made (versus actual responses), confidence intervals, and more are not discussed. To put it bluntly, this is hardly the sort of independent research that should be repeated uncritically. Journalists and critical media consumers can read the report online here; I'll leave it to them to decide if they would uncritically endorse its claims.
The Newsweek story was widely attacked for its hysterical tone and cliche-ridden content (for examples of critical coverage, see the work by my colleague Jacob Sullum and by Slate's Jack Shafer). So I can understand why Whitaker is a bit ragged out by yet one more dissing of his magazine.
But he goes too far in chiding On the Media for hosting a critical conversation about coverage of drug use in America. "If your mission," he writes, "is to monitor the accuracy of what is being reported in the media, shouldn't you take the time to do some reporting on what you allow people to say on your show?"
That's a question that Whitaker ought to be directing at himself and his staff. As I argued during my On the Media appearance, misinformation about drugs and their effects make it impossible to have serious, mature discussions about the best public policies related to prohibtion, treatment, law enforcement, and much more. The Newsweek cover story on meth sadly reminds us that most coverage of drug use has not really improved since the old tales of LSD-eating hippies staring into the sun until they went blind filled the nation's newspapers.