The Politics of Meth Panics



In my latest Forbes column, I review a new book on on the history of methamphetamine panics. Here is how the column the starts:

By 2005, when Newsweek identified "The Meth Epidemic" as "America's New Drug Crisis" in a sensational cover story, illicit methamphetamine use had been declining for years. In the National Survey on Drug and Health (NSDUH), the number of respondents who reported consuming meth in the previous year fell by about a quarter between 2002, the first year the survey was conducted, and 2005, when Newsweek cried "epidemic." Data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an earlier version of the NSDUH, suggest that meth use during this period peaked around 1999, six years before Newsweek discerned a "new drug crisis."

In his provocative and illuminating new book Meth Mania, Nicholas Parsons, a sociologist at Eastern Connecticut State University, seeks to explain why public alarm about methamphetamine bears little or no relationship to objective measures of use or abuse. Parsons persuasively argues that drug scares, like other moral panics, are driven by the interests of various "claims makers" who seek to persuade the public that an emergency exists and that urgent action is required. In the mid-1990s, for example, the government agencies whose funding depends on fear of the pharmacological menace du jour needed a new threat after the crack cocaine panic of the 1980s fizzled out. The yellow journalists at Newsweek (and many other media outlets) were happy to help, because stories about scary new drugs attract eyeballs, even when the drugs are neither new nor as threatening as the breathless warnings imply. But the policies that result from such scaremongering—which in this case included draconian prison sentences and precursor restrictions that bolstered murderous drug cartels while treating cold and allergy sufferers like criminal suspects—tend to do more harm than good.

Read the whole thing.

NEXT: Scott Shackford Interviews Gamer-Congressman Jared Polis

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  1. NSDUH

    Gotta love that acronym!

    1. No shit, duh!

  2. Isn’t the meth panic just a replay of the government poisoning industrial alcohol during Prohibition? It is my understanding that the horrible side effects of using meth are due to the impurities put into it by the idiots who make the stuff and those impurities (and thus the danger of using it) are increased by government efforts to make obtaining raw materials more difficult.

    Lets just legalize pharmaceutical grade speed and overnight kill the market for meth made with anhydrous ammonia in the back seat of a car. No more meth labs and no more horrible side effects to the people who use the stuff.

    1. Isn’t the meth panic just a replay of the government poisoning industrial alcohol during Prohibition?

      Or the crack cocaine panic, or the heroin panic, or bath salts, etc. Make it all legal. If the dopes want to dope, then let them.

      1. Exactly. The truth is that pharmaceutical grade drugs are much less dangerous than the shit made by the dealers. Most heroin ODs are because the moron who made the heroin didn’t cut it properly and the user ends up taking more than he intended. The horrible things meth does to people is because of the shit the amateur chemists who make it put into it, not because of the speed itself.

        The whole thing is an enormously damaging example of how immature our society is. People just can’t get it through their thick skulls that you can’t save other people form themselves. If someone wants to be a degenerate drug user, that is what they are going to be and there is not a damned thing you or anyone else can do about it.

        1. There is a large segment of the population that truly believes that people who break the rules should suffer serious consequences for those indiscretions. So the consequences of using black market products are a feature, not a bug.

          1. I think you are right. It is like Vicodin. The acetaminophen in it serves no purpose other than to ensure anyone who uses a lot of it suffers some pretty horrible side effects. Why the hell did they do that other than because they wanted to poison people who used it to much?

            1. We are fortunate that life sometimes punches these people in the nuts. And I enjoy their pain and suffering more than I should.

              1. What I hate about them most is their complete immaturity and lack of empathy. I don’t live in someone else’ head. I also am lucky enough not to be sick or suffer from chronic pain. Yet, I understand how maybe for some people their minds are so messed up or their body is in so much pain, taking drugs is the best of a set of bad options. All things being equal, I would rather not. And in my circumstances, I know I am better off not using drugs. I am not however going to say that someone who makes a different calculation is necessarily wrong or immoral. We all have our crosses to bare.

                1. What I hate about them most is their complete immaturity and lack of empathy.

                  It is important to dehumanize the enemy. Drug users are the enemy. To drug warriors, users are not human.

                  1. To try my turn at being sarcasmic:

                    To free addicts from the prison of addiction, addicts must be locked in prison.

                    Did I do it right?

                    1. Sure EDG as long as you not talking about my loved one who is an addict. They just need to go to rehab. It is that evil dealer who sold them the drugs and the other customers who keep him in business who should be killed.

                    2. My wife totally supports the drug war. She equates legalizing drugs with saying drugs are wonderful and good, as opposed to saying prohibition is worse.

                    3. I know plenty of people like that sarcasmic. They are totally convinced that the only reason people are not degenerate drug addicts is because the cops are keeping the stuff out of our reach.

                      The only thing I can say is that there do seem to be a fewer of those sorts of people than there used to be. Still way to many people think like that.

    2. I think some side effects are from left over nasty chemicals, but a lot of the typical meth-user symptoms are mostly from not sleeping and eating nothing but sugar for days at a time. Give those ugly-ass people in the “after meth” pictures a shower, a sandwich and some sleep and they’ll look like humans again.
      But that’s none of my business and legalizing the real stuff would eliminate the dangers to other people both from labs and from junkies trying to get money for black market drugs.

  3. You aren’t foolin’ me, Sullum. Meth has killed everyone. We are all just zombies now. BATH SALTZ zombies at that!

  4. Fear, uncertainty and dread.

    1. Doubt. Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt (FUD)

  5. Planning to wrap up Season 3 of Breaking Bad this weekend.

    That is all.

  6. Crack and meth were both developed in response to prohibition, right? And are both worse than their predecessors, right?

    The government poisons, by policy, pain-killers, and has in the past poisoned pot (paraquat) and alcohol.

    How anyone can say that the WOD isn’t inhumane and a crime against humanity, I just can’t understand.

    1. It’s a moral thing. You see, drugs are the moral equivalent of murder and rape. They’re that bad. Why? Because fuck you they are, and your even questioning why makes you suspect. Do you condone murder and rape? No? Then why do you condone drugs? They’re the same thing. Oh sure you’ll say there are no victims, but what about ruined families? What about the children? What about lost job productivity? Yeah, yeah, yeah, prison hurts families, children and job productivity, but that’s where murders, rapists, and drug users belong.

      /average drug warrior

    2. I’m pretty sure meth was developed as a pharmeceutical. But I think that most people were satisfied with regular amphetamines before they became much harder to get.
      Crack probably wouldn’t exist without prohibition, but some people would probably still want to use a more pure form of cocaine freebase.

      1. Crack would definitely not exist without prohibition. It was developed after it got harder to smuggle large amounts of cocaine. Crack is just cocaine concentrated into rock form and thus made easier to smuggle and hide from the police.

        1. Crack is also a totally different high. Some people love the shit. I tried it once and hated it.

          1. Crack is a good example of how society does correct itself. Everyone was supposed to be on crack by 1990 because it was so evil and addictive. Instead, the “epidemic” such as it was ran its course as people realized what a nasty drug it was and “crack head” became an insult.

            Gee, people act rationally and learn from the mistakes and fates of others? What a subversive concept.

        2. It is also chemically a bit different as it is a freebase form instead of a water soluble salt of cocaine. That’s what makes it so effective for smoking and is why some people are specifically addicted to crack.

          But, I agree that you are right about why it is popular among dealers and smugglers. Similarly, if opium were legal, a lot less of it would get turned into heroin.

          1. I always enjoyed a foily or two, but crack sucks.

  7. Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt (FUD)

    I was close. Fear and dread are pretty much redundant.

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