The Meth 'Epidemic': Not New, Not National (and Not Really an Epidemic, but Don't Get Me Started on the Medicalization of Behavior)


The Drug War Chronicle reports that data released this week by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research indicate that the number of methamphetamine-related drug treatment admissions in the U.S. rose nine-fold between 1992 and 2003. Half the admissions in 2003 were referrals from the criminal justice system–i.e., drug offenders forced into treatment by the threat of jail. "Caution should be used in utilizing treatment admissions data as an indicator of use or dependence," say the researchers, "since treatment admissions may also be influenced by changes in law enforcement and sentencing practices as well as changes in legislation which divert drug offenders to treatment."

The University of Maryland numbers are based on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Treatment Episode Data Set, which is not comprehensive but "includes records for some 1.5 million substance abuse treatment admissions annually." The number of methamphetamine admissions counted by TEDS in 2003 (129,000, up from 14,570 in 1992) represents 7 percent of that total, up from 1 percent in 1992.

The TEDS tables available online don't have a column for methamphetamine specifically. But judging from the numbers for "amphetamines," admissions climbed steadily from 1992 through 2003 (the latest year for which national data are available), except for a dip in 1996. Leaving aside the problem of measuring addiction through criminal justice referrals, this trend does not jibe with the impression left by news media coverage that the country has been experiencing a methamphetamine "epidemic" that emerged suddenly in the last few years.

Nor do the data indicate a nationwide "epidemic." In 2005, for instance, Oregon had 9,563 treatment admissions for amphetamines, or 266 per 100,000 residents, while New York state had 611, or three per 100,000 residents. And while admissions have been rising since 2003 in Oregon, they've been falling in New York.