How Did the Government's Surveys Miss a Quadrupling in Meth Use?

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In a story about the Combat Meth Act (which, among other things, will restrict access to cold and allergy medications that contain pseudoephedrine), The Washington Times mentions in passing that "law enforcement authorities said meth use nationwide has increased by as much as 300 percent in the past decade." In other words, the number of illicit methamphetamine users today is about four times what it was in the mid-1990s. Where is the evidence to support this claim?

Based on data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated (see Table 9) that 0.4 percent of Americans 12 or older used methamphetamine for nonmedical purposes in 1995. The comparable figure for 2001 (see Table H.2) was 0.6 percent–an increase of 50 percent over six years. The following year, the NHSDA was revamped and renamed the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), so numbers from 2002 and later are not comparable to earlier numbers. (The new methodology was designed to increase respondents' candor, and there was an across-the-board increase in reported drug use.) But the NSDUH numbers can be compared to each other, and past-year meth use in that survey went from 0.7 percent in 2001 to 0.6 percent in 2004.

It's true these surveys cover only 98 percent or so of the population, and some of those who are missed, such as people living on the streets or behind bars, may be especially prone to illegal drug use. (Then again, the surveys also leave out people in the armed forces, where rates of illegal drug use may be lower than average.) And I realize people may not be completely honest in reporting their own illegal drug use, even when they're assured of confidentiality. But unless the dramatic increase in meth use claimed by the "law enforcement authorities" mentioned in The Washington Times has been limited to populations not sampled by the surveys and/or users' reluctance to admit meth use has been rising at the same rate as meth use itself, a quadrupling in consumption ought to be reflected in the survey data.

Instead, it looks like meth use went up in the late '90s by about one-sixth as much as "law enforcement authorities" claim and has remained pretty much flat since then. If these surveys are so inaccurate that they've missed more than 80 percent of a 300 percent increase, why does the government continue to rely on them (except when it comes to whipping up hysteria about the "meth epidemic")?

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  1. ‘If these surveys are so inaccurate that they’ve missed more than 80 percent of a 300 percent increase, why does the government continue to rely on them (except when it comes to whipping up hysteria about the “meth epidemic”)?’

    Question asked, question answered.

  2. [off topic]

    Thanks to that MSNBC teaser in the upper left, Reason is not work-safe today.

  3. Because we believe them.

  4. If these surveys are so inaccurate that they’ve missed more than 80 percent of a 300 percent increase, why does the government continue to rely on them (except when it comes to whipping up hysteria about the “meth epidemic”)?

    For the children, obviously.

  5. I think Rich Ard nailed it. It only matters whether people believe the stats, and people love to believe the worst.

  6. law enforcement authorities said meth use nationwide has increased by as much as 300 percent in the past decade.

    The authorities then described how everyone who trys meth even once instantly becomes addicted, and within three weeks is living on the streets, having stabbed their own mother and sold her wedding ring to buy more drugs. “Everything we use to say about crack, is really true about meth” they said.

  7. So with that 300% increase, statistically speaking, we are now all dead.

  8. Now I know it’s fun to ridicule the authorities for overhyping the “meth menace” and all… but dear god in heaven I’ve certainly seen a dramatic escalation in the last ten years.

    I’ve seen it go from being mainly a biker drug to being a totaly mainstream drug. I live in rural Arizona and the level of use here is beyond belief. The quality is also now uniformly very high. No more “peanut butter crank”, now it’s all clear stuff. My wife runs a restaurant and it used to be that crystal was only an occasional problem. Now we just hope they don’t come to work tweaking too obviously.

    I know this is strictly anecdotal and may be specific to where I’m located, but that’s what I’ve seen.

  9. bob m., as a former near-the-border resident, I agree it IS a problem. There is no doubt about that.

    The question is, as always, why is the government so interested in hyping it beyond sense?

  10. I agree it IS a problem.

    For whom?

  11. If these surveys are so inaccurate that they’ve missed more than 80 percent of a 300 percent increase, why does the government continue to rely on them (except when it comes to whipping up hysteria about the “meth epidemic”)?

    To me, the important question is, if these surveys don’t support a 300% increase, where is the survey that does? It’s one thing to point out possible weaknesses of these studies, but unless they can point to another credible study that says something different, these “law enforcement authorities” are simply lying to us.

  12. For whom?

    Taxpayers, LEO’s, teachers and employers, namely. In some cases, parents, and (I hesitate to add, but it is true) children.

    In a similar way, alcohol is also a problem.

    My position is, that just because something’s a problem, that doesn’t mean the government has some kind of license to do any damn fool thing it wants in addressing it. Conversely, just because somebody doens’t want the government going off the rails and blowing something out of proportion doesn’t mean we should pretend there is no problem at all.

    The government is grossly OVERSTATING the meth problem, but it is not INVENTING it out of thin air.

  13. i. worm,

    Sorry for the sarcastic tone of the post, I didn’t really intend that. I think we largely agree on the issue of government hype. But, I guess what I would distinguish is a personal problem from a societal one. Meth use can certainly be a personal problem for those who get addicted (and maybe that is a large percentage of users, I don’t really know). However, to the extent it is a societal problem (if at all), it is purely of government creation. Were it not for this insane War on Freedom, er Drugs, drug addicts would be no worse of a problem than alcoholics. Which isn’t to say none at all, but a problem that should be dealt with on an individual basis rather than with sweeping legislation spurred on by the breathless hysteria surrounding meth use.

  14. If I had to warrant a guess where those figures come from, if they are coming from “law enforcement authorities”, then I would say most likely the data comes directly from arrest rates. Which is not at all to say there is an actual increase in use rates, (or as anecdotally suggested above, a change in usage patters.. i.e. the types of folks now taking meth as opposed to the types who used to take it) only that I wouldn’t at all be surprised if actual arrests for meth-related offenses have increased. After all if the police have been more focused on targeting a specific drug, then of course there is going to be an increase in what they find from when they weren’t looking for that specific indicator. Just my guess, though.

  15. You might be right Lenny. But that brings up another issue, which is that you shouldn’t have to guess where the justification for this sort of claim is. Especially when the ramifications affect federal law.

  16. And I realize people may not be completely honest in reporting their own illegal drug use, even when they’re assured of confidentiality.

    When given surveys like this, I always, ALWAYS, lie. I always EXXAGGERATE my drug and alcohol use at least by 1000%. (If not infinite, in cases where I just don’t do it.) I feel that helps balance it out for the people that don’t. I’m probably on the FBI’s watchlist somewhere, but, eh, aren’t we all?

  17. Yogi,

    “Eh?” Are you a filthy, doughnut-eating Canadian? ‘Cause if you are, you can bet the feds are watching you now.

  18. Has anybody considered that they may be using the oft-tried statistical trick of using raw numbers of users instead of % of population? With the increase in population, particularly in certain areas of the country, a 300% increase in usage is possible to come to. In addition, they may be using the low end and high end of wide confidence intervals, etc. Statistics are great because you get them to prove anything.

  19. My theory about increased meth use is that it has happened because they stopped putting up those psychedelic “Don’t meth around” posters in the junior high schools like we had when I was a kid. I mean, seriously, that red and green “Only goofs go for goofballs” poster really made me think twice about smoking Quaaludes in an electric bong.

  20. If bikers were the only ones doing meth 10 years ago wouldn’t they all be using still this day due to meths high addiction rates, or perhaps they are all dead now 10 years later due to the meth? Perhaps the increase in the number of people riding bikes is in direct relation to the increase in meth use overall, thanks OCC 😉

    According to the governments propaganda through the decades we really should not have any drug problems at this point in time since all drug users should have jumped off buildings, gone insane and commited suicide or just plain be dead from the drug use itself. I swear crack just can’t get any respect these days with this new meth kid on the block.

    But at least our all knowing pols made sure to take meds off the shelves and created registries to monitor every citizens sinus purchases. So important was this issue it was included in the Patriot Act. After all if we allow terrorists to purchase untold boxes of sinus medication they willhave won.

    Thankfully in the past few months we have had such difficult issues addressed and acted on so that none of us ever has to worry about steroids in baseball, an unfair college football playoff system or sinus medication falling into the wrong hands.

    I am just happy they found the time to fix social security, immigration, healthcare etc etc in between such critical law making. Whatever would we do without these heros of the everyday man? Oh yeah thats right we could do what we want to.. Shhhhhhhh

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