When Meth Freaks Turn to Urban Planning…

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Somehow I missed this great review by Reason Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin of PBS/Frontline's recent documentary on The Meth Epidemic (which originally aired a couple of weeks back). In a couple of paragraphs, Garvin zips through the case–familiar to anyone who doesn't drink from the same Kool-Aid fountain as drug czars and Newsweek editors–that meth use isn't, well, an epidemic. He concludes:

There's even an interview with a meth-head from Portland, Ore., who insists, without contradiction: "I think meth has destroyed this community. I think, in all reality, they need to take a bomb and blow it all up, it's that bad." Luckily for Portland, budget cuts have grounded PBS' fleet of B-1s.

The bombing of Portland is only slightly more extreme than most of the policy suggestions that come up in Frontline. Though the program didn't have time for a single interview with a meth-epidemic skeptic, it drags out every nutty drug warrior it can find in support of shutting down the production of pseudoephedrine, the chemical from which meth is most easily manufactured. If pseudoephedrine sounds familiar, that's because it's the active ingredient of most allergy and cold medicines. Frontline's drug Rambos say that anybody who buys those medicines should have to register with the government.

There's an epidemic here, all right—of lunacy. And bad journalism is not the cure.

Whole bit here.

Garvin's archive of Herald TV cols is here.

NEXT: Crime and Punishment

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  1. When I went to buy some cold medicine last week, I noticed that CVS in CT has moved most pseudoephedrine product behind the register. I think it was only the ones that weren’t mixed with a pain medicine, because I was able to buy the Nuprin cold medicine without bringing the card up.

    I did notice that quite a few, including the one I like use, were on sale as discontinued items.

  2. That’s too bad-frontline usually does a decent job.

  3. I saw the Frontline program last week and I have to say that I was pretty disturbed with the lack of evidence. During the program Frontline decided to show before and after pictures of meth addicts. The pictures were very shocking, but they kept doing through out the program, which made me feel that they were trying to distract me from the facts with emotions.
    As soon that I heard of the Frontline program on meth I had a feeling that it was going to be lame.

  4. It strikes me that the two most misused words today are epidemic and addiction.

    Besides meth we seem to have numerous “epidemics” according to TV “journalists”. Do you suppose any of them ever looked up the definition of the word in their Funk & Wagnalls?

    And the local Fox affilliate is doing a series on people who are “addicted” to their cell phones. Give me a fucking break!

  5. Way far off topic, but since it is the most recent here goes:

    Does anybody know the name of the judge or where he is that was throwing out DUI cases due to the prosecusions failure to prove impairment? It was in the print edition two months ago in Citings, I think. I don’t have the mag handy here at work (I’m not a staffer in Congress, afterall), and I’m trying to point someone to the guy or a story about the guy. It wasn’t posted online; I don’t think so, anyway.

  6. Back on topic: I’m “outraged,” Mr. Bartram, over the misuse and overuse of words.

  7. Epidemic – *snork!* Like it’s polio or something. They like to use the word “epidemic” because it makes meth abuse sound like a social, as opposed to an individual, problem. It ranks right up there with the obesity “epidemic.” I heard a comedian making fun of the obesity epidemic, how you’d be telling your grandchildren someday, ‘Oh, I remember the obesity epidemic of 2004! There were cheeseburgers everywhere!’

  8. It strikes me that the two most misused words today are epidemic and addiction.

    Hey, if people are using the words to mean that, why should us pedants be sticklers about “definitions”? Language is like, evolving, man.

  9. PintofStout:

    Judge Ian M. O’Flaherty

  10. Thanks, jf; much appreciated.

  11. Some definitions for the pendants

    Epidemic
    “a particular problem that seriously affects many people at the same time”

    Addiction
    “The condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or or involved in something.”

    Where’s the misuse?

  12. A definition for the pedants:

    Pendant:
    Something suspended from something else, especially an ornament or piece of jewelry attached to a necklace or bracelet.

    🙂

  13. “The first Funk & Wagnalls dictionary was A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1893). It espoused four policies pertinent to its initial and future publications: the ordering of definitions according to current, rather than historical, usage…”

    Even F&W would be arguing with you on what these words mean, had they put out a dictionary since the late 50’s…

  14. Thoreau,

    indeed, I was addressing the jewelry unfairly. Damned fat fingers

  15. In politics, an Epidemic (from Greek epi- meaning upon + demos, meaning alarmist, scaremongering nanny) is a non-existent condition that is perceived only by politicians and law enforcement agencies. The ailment can mutate into a media-borne virus that often infects significant portions of the larger population. A single exposure is not fatal, but multiple or continuous exposure can lead to nausea, straight-party voting and eventually an agonizing, taxpayer subsidized death.

  16. Frontline really let me down on this one. They’ve done stinkers before but nothing this bad. I watched a couple of the “Frontline World” and they were horrible. I hope they recover, Frontline was pretty much alone in it’s coverage of current events.

  17. science-

    I think the strongest argument against using the definitions you cite is that the definitions have become much less specific than they used to be while retaining all of the old fearful connotations. Those connotations may have been appropriate with regard to the conditions originally denoted, but are not appropriate for everything covered by the newer, broader definition. It is therefore rhetorically dishonest to use such loaded terms in a vague manner.

    Would the pedants say that I represented their argument fairly? I think that in the last linguistics debate I may not have fairly represented the views of the pedants. I still think I’d disagree with the argument presented above, but I would like to know whether this stance is actually advocated by the pedants on this forum before I argue against it.

  18. Living as I do in the “meth capital of the world” (people here almost say it proudly), I posit one reason for the constant “meth epidemic” noise.

    The police (and politicians) have an incentive to talk up every meth arrest, sensationalize every story, and count those who have tried meth as meth addicts, and guess why. Money. Federal money. In Quincy, IL, a few years ago, police started doing sobriety checkpoints on Friday and Saturday nights. DUI arrests skyrocketed. In comes some federal money for the police department– after all, they need more equipment and more officers to handle this unexplainable DUI epidemic. After the dollars pour in, the police start doing the checkpoints on weekday nights and even afternoons. Surprise– arrests go down. The federal money solved the problem. Politicians are happy, police are happy, and so are citizens– especially drunk drivers.

    Obviously, the current situation calls for Congress not just to blindly accept that the numbers are true, but to scrutinize how they are obtained. 1.5 million meth addicts? Please. Meth epidemic sweeping the nation? Hardly. Meth use is on the decline even here in the “meth capital of the world.” The numbers show it is in the rest of the country too.

  19. it’s a pandemic!!! (gag)

  20. science, just because crappy neo-definitions are enshrined in some dictionary or other doesn’t make them right.

  21. Thoreau,

    I know, I know… its just that words mean what they are meant to mean as they are used by the user. Complaining about the usage doesn’t change the usage patterns much if the extension (less specific meaning) is rhetorically functional across a large number of usage contexts.

    RC…
    The question becomes, what DOES make them right. How do you decide what a word REALLY means? I would go with the dominant usage pattern for a general definition, and use the context of use to determine particular instances of the word. What is the other option?

  22. science-

    I’d have more sympathy for people who said that the use of the word “epidemic” or “addiction” is misleading rather than blatantly wrong as a matter of logic and fact.

  23. I have a cousin in jail for life because of meth-related crimes. It’s sad, very sad — your gut reaction is to take over control — but my publisher Jim Walsh once gave me a word of advice: the hard part about valuing liberty is accepting the fact that people make bad decisions.

  24. “It is therefore rhetorically dishonest to use such loaded terms in a vague manner.”

    Since the discourse space is a jointly created entity that involves implications from the speaker and inference from the listener, the meaning that results from the discourse is the responsibility of the joint actors in teh activity, not the speaker alone.

    If I say “meth epidemic” ostensively to mean that there are a lot of people severely impacted by their meth use (a true statement even in a truth-conditional semantics), and RC Dean thinks I am comparing meth usage to the black death, it isn’t really my rhetorical dishonesty that is a problem.

  25. “he use of the word “epidemic” or “addiction” is misleading rather than blatantly wrong”

    I think a better way to put it is… “likely to be misinterpreted.”

  26. Nick, are you sure that you didn’t mean Fred Garvin?

  27. I would like to be able to wear a pedant around my neck. That would be cool.

    the hard part about valuing liberty is accepting the fact that people make bad decisions.

    Sadly, Stevo Darkly’s Second Law is: “You cannot save people from their own stupid choices.”

  28. How do you decide what a word REALLY means?

    To me, it means what I say it means. People who try to change the meanings of words to advance their own agendas (cf “addiction” and “epidemic”) rarely convince me to go along. Other people, who get sucked into their redefinitions, sacrifice a little of my respect.

    So, since “epidemic” now means “whatever is bothering a lot of people these days”, what word to we use for “widespread disease”?

    And since “addiction” now means “whatever behavior I am ashamed of and want to avoid responsibility for”, what word do we use for “I have nasty physical symptoms when I stop consuming this chemical compound”?

  29. the hard part about valuing liberty is accepting the fact that people make bad decisions.

    A corollary of “You aren’t really free unless you are free to be wrong.”

  30. If I say “meth epidemic” ostensively to mean that there are a lot of people severely impacted by their meth use (a true statement even in a truth-conditional semantics), and RC Dean thinks I am comparing meth usage to the black death, it isn’t really my rhetorical dishonesty that is a problem.

    I think that when Frontline uses the word epidemic, they certainly want the black death scenario in the mind of the viewer. That’s why epidemic is almost always coupled with “sweeping” in these types of pieces. A ” Meth epidemic sweeping the nation” implies a sort of contagion.

  31. Hmm. What about epidemiology? I suppose its definition has gone from “the study of how disease spreads” to “study of how addicts (however defined) behave.” We can now fire all of the doctors at the CDC, and replace them with sociologists.

  32. Or drug cops.

  33. Try this one one instead.

    Define “disease” with logical rigor for me.

    Epidemiology has traditionally included the study of addiction and mental illness as part of its scope.

    David,
    To be clear, I wasn’t defending the Frontline piece, just pointing out the problem with people who don’t recognize the gradient nature of word meaning. To argue against “Epidemic sweeping the nation” it is better to point out the lack of “sweeping-ness” than the lack of “epidemic-ness” since “sweeping” has a much more stable implication due to its far higher frequency of usage.

  34. Frontline appeared to be upfront about the fact that the rate of meth use was far, far lower than marijuana use– a point brought up by the current “drug czar” about why he didn’t consider it important to devote significant resources to a crackdown on meth use. The members of the communities affected by meth said that for their communities, meth was having a significant impact.

    The implication, as far as I could tell, was that because the meth “epidemic” was limited in scope, then strict controls on the pseuephedrine producers was likely to have a significant impact. If meth use were a widespread national phenomenon that didn’t depend on specialized chemicals, then such a crackdown of the “source” would be more or less useless– so solutions that involve these crackdowns at the source are inevitably going to be proposed for problems that are limited in scope.

  35. RC
    “what word do we use for “I have nasty physical symptoms when I stop consuming this chemical compound”?”

    “physical addiction” (cf “psychological addiction”)

    Our language is replete with modifiers.

  36. RC
    “People who try to change the meanings of words to advance their own agendas”

    Kettle, meet pot.

  37. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. -H.L.M.

    Epidemic of Meth Addiction!
    Meth Use Remains About the Same
    Not only are hobgoblins good fertilizer for growing a bigger gov’t, they’re good for selling advertising because, just as more people will listen and attend to someone saying “Watch out!” than to “Nice weather, huh?”, more people will read the “news” (and see the advertising) if they’re threatened by nonsense like the first headline.

    And, BTW:
    Epidemic
    Webster 1931: Attacking many at the same time; said of a disease.
    Colliers 1953: Affecting many in a community at once.

    Addiction:
    Lemurian Dictionary of News-Speak: 1: something so terrible that special, addiction-proofed 3rd parties must intervene on your behalf and for your protection: the US has an oil addiction.
    2: A Menckenian hobgoblin

  38. America has an addiction addiction.

  39. And since “addiction” now means “whatever behavior I am ashamed of and want to avoid responsibility for”, what word do we use for “I have nasty physical symptoms when I stop consuming this chemical compound”?

    Your ideologically strict definition for addiction originates in the 1950s, R.C. The broader definition science cited dates back to the seventeenth century and has a much finer pedigree. Just because you’ve read a little Thomas Szaz doesn’t mean everybody else has to fall in line.

    Definition 2a for Addiction from the Oxford English Dictionary

    The state of being (self-)addicted or given to a habit or pursuit; devotion.

    1641 Vind. Smectym. ii. 43 The peoples..more willing addiction to hearing. 1675 E. PHILLIPS in Shaks. Cent. Praise 360 His own proper Industry and Addiction to Books. 1789 T. JEFFERSON Writings (1859) II. 585 Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. 1858 GLADSTONE Stud. Homer I. 237 Their addiction to agricultural pursuits. 1859 MILL Liberty 146 A man who causes grief to his family by addiction to bad habits.

  40. e and science are kicking much ass.

  41. thoreau, while you are not wrong, I think you need to also recognize Mr. Darkly. While “addiction addiction” is only medium-funny, his “Atlas Shrugged for kids” deserves greater recognition.

    But feel free to continue debate about the meaning of words.

  42. “Atlas Shrugged For Kids” is indeed a work of genius.

  43. Ok, then, e is my favorite vowel, and science my strongest category in trivial pursuit. Carry on.

  44. Actually,

    Actually, I think the problem is restricted variation of forms to mean the same thing. An addiction can be your “bag, monkey, habit, kick, thing, compulsion, etc…”

    From now on we should always say “monkey” instead of addiction when we are talking about meth just cause “meth monkey” sounds cool (not to denegrate “crank kick”)

    In certain circles the H&R monkey is epidemic.

  45. that’s denigrate.
    Where’d I learn to type?

  46. I have no doubt that the claims of a “meth epidemic” are overstated. That said, it is a little scary that 1,500,000 people have used meth at some time in their lives and 600,000 have used it in the past month. That is a high proportion of reasonably chronic use to one-time use, and suggests, at the least, that meth has a strong attraction for its users.

  47. John Mack, you make a good point, and it is something we need to examine. Why are these people willing to use, despite the rather obvious negative effects, and the possible severe repercussions legally. One possible answer:

    Is addiction real?

    Not my blog, just something worth reading.

    In a free society, this would be a necessary debate, since the outcome could affect the lives and well-being of many. In our society, drugs are bad mmmmkay.

  48. “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

  49. I messed up that last post….inconceivable.

    “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

  50. Taylor:

    I have a cousin in jail for life because of meth-related crimes. It’s sad, very sad

    My sympathies, Taylor. Let us work to repeal our government’s barbaric drug laws.

  51. Stevo’s “Atlas Shrugged For Kids” is indeed a work of genius for sure.

  52. How do you decide what a word REALLY means?

    And, like, have you ever looked – really looked – at your hands?

    I think the strongest argument against using the definitions you cite is that the definitions have become much less specific than they used to be while retaining all of the old fearful connotations. Those connotations may have been appropriate with regard to the conditions originally denoted, but are not appropriate for everything covered by the newer, broader definition. It is therefore rhetorically dishonest to use such loaded terms in a vague manner.

    You’re close, Thoreau. I look at it as more that certain metaphors (“a plague of bad reality shows swept across television after the writers’ strike!”) get repeated enough for people to get away with pretending they aren’t really metaphors. The War on Whichever. Epidemic of Whatever I Don’t Like. Addiction to Whatever I Don’t Want My Kid/Wife/Husband Spending A Lot of Time On.

    I’d have more sympathy for people who said that the use of the word “epidemic” or “addiction” is misleading rather than blatantly wrong as a matter of logic and fact.

    Well, if you think such uses of “epidemic” and “addiction” are fair game, then why don’t we just skip ahead to declaring all who disagree with us – or hey, just me! – “insane” or “evil”? Seems as defendable. 🙂

    So which are you, Thoreau, insane or evil? Or will you give me a two-fer and go the mad scientist route? 😉

    e and science are kicking much ass.

    I think that’s a questionable redefinition of “kicking ass”.

  53. Arguing over definitions can provide hours of fun in cyberspace, but it won’t stop them from impeaching you. Believe me, I’ve been there.

    Of course, if I really want to have fun in cyberspace I usually check out those voyeur cams.

  54. If there is a meth epidemic, it’s a self-limiting one. Methamphetamine is a lot stronger than amphetamine, so hardcore users burn out more quickly. And if it’s an epidemic, it’s one that only really affects hardcore users anyway (apart from drug-related crimes).

    BTW, here in Australia, they seem to have taken all pseudoephedrine products off the shelf, and we’re supposed to make do with some herbal crap instead. I want my cheap speed buzz, dammit!

  55. EYERESIST, that corresponds with my own experience earlier in life as a cocaine user with meth mixed in when supply was interupted.

    I haven’t used in over 10 years, but did come to understand while recovering that strong stimulant drugs are so disabling when used to excess that the average cat – if access to steady supply could be assured – would BEG for treatment help within 60-90 days max.

    This also supports legalizing cocaine and increasing access to pharm-grade strong stimulants.

    Those who could use occasionally without moving into the abuse cycle would be assured more clean product produced in a regulated setting. They would also be able to score at affordable prices without going through distribution locations which are dangerous.

    And those more likely to hit the abuse cycle would bottom out FAST, just as someone who hammers alcohol for months on end would do.

  56. Half-bee, that was a totally insane defense, I mean your logic is sick. Dropping that metaphor trip, and then that evil twist on the end… really got to the heart of the issue.

    The criticism is aimed at people who find their particular narrow sense of the word correct against the better judgment of millions of others (but only when used to make a point that they disagree with). Just makes your agenda kinda pulse there on your sleeve, without really addressing the underlying issue. If there are 600,000 meth monkeys, it can be fairly described as an epidemic based on common word usage patterns (same goes for obesity, or lack of critical dialogue surrounding politics in our country). If you don’t think that problem warrants government intervention, that is another issue. But to claim that the people who call it an epidemic are being imprecise or rhetorically dishonest (or pretending that its not a metaphor) shows a lack of understanding of semantic processes, poor self-awareness, and a paucity of basic respect for other’s considered opinions.

  57. I meant to say, “Thanks for kind words here and on the Mommycrat thread” but I think I accidentally posted it on the wrong thread.

  58. I don’t have much of a problem with the figurative use of words. It’s just that every time I turn around there’s and epidemic of or addiction to something. And some dumb bimbo announcing it from the tube.

    Frankly, after a while, a metaphor just loses its punch.

  59. Just makes your agenda kinda pulse there on your sleeve, without really addressing the underlying issue.

    Remind me what my agenda was, aside from mocking folks like you?

    If there are 600,000 meth monkeys, it can be fairly described as an epidemic based on common word usage patterns (same goes for obesity, or lack of critical dialogue surrounding politics in our country)….But to claim that the people who call it an epidemic are being imprecise or rhetorically dishonest (or pretending that its not a metaphor)

    Sorry…pick one. Are we talking about expanding the definition of a word in defiance of flustered pedants, or using figurative language? Because, dude, I love metaphors. In fact, in the next paragraph of that post, I kinda talked about them a bit…

  60. Cool. I’m going downtown right now to tell all of those skinny bicycle theieves who have shown up in the past year that the meth epidemic is a fraud perpetuated by journalists.

  61. Wouldn’t it be funny if we banned pseudoephedrine and it turned out your skinny bicycle thieves were actually heroin or crack addicts?

    I’ll run right downtown and tell the latest victim of a SWAT team going into the wrong house and shooting somebody who doesn’t deal drugs that it’s justified because there are some bike thieves in your neighborhood.

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