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.