The Need for Speed and the Politics of Panics

The results of meth hysteria have been uglier than a tweeker in an anti-drug ad.


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.

Parsons focuses on three distinct methamphetamine scares: the "speed freak" alarm of the late 1960s and early '70s, the short-lived "ice" epidemic of late 1989 and early 1990, and the "crystal meth" panic typified by that Newsweek cover story, which began around 1995 and (judging from press mentions) peaked a little more than a decade later. In each case, hyperbolic statements by politicians, journalists, addiction specialists, and law enforcement officials turned the dangers posed by meth into a national menace.

Prior to the late 1960s, Parsons notes, people worried about inappropriate or excessive consumption of stimulants, but methamphetamine was not seen as especially worrisome in that respect, let alone "America's most dangerous drug," as Newsweek would later describe it. First synthesized in 1893, methamphetamine, a.k.a. Methedrine, was just one of several related stimulants, including amphetamine (Benzedrine) and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), that were introduced as over-the-counter medications in the 1930s and '40s. Amphetamine tablets, which were easy to obtain even after the federal government began requiring prescriptions in 1951, were widely used to combat drowsiness, boost attention, and lose weight. While concerns about abuse led to increasingly tight legal restrictions, methamphetamine did not acquire a reputation as more potent, addictive, or dangerous than the other amphetamines until people started injecting black-market versions of it.

In laboratory studies, Columbia neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart notes, methamphetamine and dextroamphetamine (one of Adderall's main ingredients) "produce nearly identical physiological and behavioral effects." Hart suggests that meth broke out of the amphetamine pack as a uniquely powerful stimulant in the public mind mainly because black-market chemists found it relatively easy to synthesize. Parsons notes that "the first 'meth labs' in the United States sprang up in California in 1962," in response to restrictions aimed at curtailing diversion of legally produced amphetamines.

By 1967 newspapers were describing methamphetamine-injecting "speed freaks" as disagreeable, aggressive "psychos" who were scorned by peace-loving hippies. Parsons observes that moral panics often involve such "folk devils," who personify the threat and justify a punitive response. Other examples from the history of U.S. drug policy include the sinister Chinaman who lures white women into sexual slavery with opium, the "cocainized Negro" who acquires unaccustomed boldness and superhuman strength, and the violent, morally depraved "crackhead" (an updated version of the cocainized Negro).

Parsons shows that coverage of methamphetamine in Time and The New York Times shot up in 1967, driven largely by a single incident: the rape and murder of Linda Fitzpatrick, the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, couple who dropped out of an exclusive private school and reportedly got "hooked on" Mephedrine. She and a companion were found dead in a Greenwich Village basement, and Time speculated that their assailants had been under the influence of speed. The Fitzpatrick story cast methamphetamine as both a catalyst of savage violence and a threat to innocence that could seduce even the kids of "good" families—themes that were conspicuous in later bouts of meth-induced anxiety. Parsons notes that stories about methamphetamine fell sharply around 1971, after passage of the Controlled Substances Act seemed to address the problem, "symbolically exorciz[ing] the speed demon."

here followed a lull in press attention to methamphetamine that lasted nearly two decades, even though this seems to be the period during which consumption of the drug actually peaked (judging from retrospective NSDUH data and contemporaneous numbers from the Monitoring the Future Study, which has surveyed high school students since 1975). "When taken together," Parsons writes, "longitudinal data on methamphetamine consumption are effectively inversely related to media trends." This phenomenon of public concern lagging the problem that ostensibly provokes it is not limited to methamphetamine. Marijuana use, for example, was already declining by the time the Reagan administration's war on drugs and first lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign were underway.

In 1989 "ice," a smokable form of meth first noticed in Hawaii, received a burst of publicity, partly as a result of competition between that state's two congressmen over the Senate seat that was about to be vacated by the death of Spark Matsunaga. "Hyping the ice threat seemed to be a safe political move," Parsons writes, "and both representatives worked to publicly demonstrate each was tougher than the other on the drugs issue." They warned that the fad was about to leap the Pacific into the continental United States, bringing havoc in its wake. That did not happen, and by the end of 1990 the story had died. Parsons argues that the Drug Enforcement Administration initially fanned fears about ice but reversed course after it got a big budget bump as part of the federal government's response to the "crack epidemic."

In the mid-1990s, after the crack story had loss any trace of novelty, political interest in methamphetamine, this time dubbed "crystal meth," picked up again. Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton's drug czar, worried (hoped?) that meth could become "the crack of the 1990s." A few years later, he warned that it "could be the crack cocaine of the next century if we don't get ahead of the problem."

Such predictions were largely self-fulfilling. Although NSDUH data cited by Parsons indicate that monthly meth users never accounted for more than 0.3 percent of the population between 2002 and 2011, the drug in its latest incarnation loomed large in the public imagination. Meth did become the next crack in the sense that it was portrayed as the scariest drug ever, turning its users into hideous, homicidal, zombie-like subhumans who made speed freaks seem attractive and tame by comparison. Popular portrayals of meth's effects, which Parsons describes in detail with a keen eye for exaggeration and unjustified assumptions, were grossly misleading on two major counts: They presented extreme cases as typical, and they blamed every harm suffered or inflicted by meth addicts, ranging from tooth decay to murderous rampages, on the drug itself.

This sort of pharmacological reductionism is belied by the history of methamphetamine, which shows that the effects attributed to the drug are powerfully shaped by context. In fact, one need not travel back to the 1950s to see that, since methamphetamine (Desoxyn) and similar stimulants (such as Adderall) are widely prescribed today to children and adults, mainly for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The millions of Americans who regularly consume these drugs generally manage to keep their teeth, take care of their children, and refrain from driving stolen tanks down freeways.

Parsons, like Carl Hart, argues that meth hype has done real damage by encouraging fear-driven policies. He observes that "many of the contemporary problems associated with methamphetamine—the increased popularity of a relatively dangerous and addictive form of the drug, the chemical contamination caused by clandestine 'meth labs' where methamphetamine is often manufactured, and the high degree of violence associated with meth trafficking in the United States and along the border with Mexico—are largely due to drug policies enacted in a culture of fear perpetuated through the mass media."

Parsons perceives "a cyclical pattern whereby public hysteria over a chemical substance culminates in supply-side solutions, which in turn foster newer forms of stimulant abuse, which in turn lead to another round of hysteria." The 1914 ban on nonmedical use of cocaine, he argues, encouraged the introduction of amphetamines to satisfy Americans' "need for speed." Restrictions on pharmaceutical amphetamines led to black-market meth of unreliable quality, produced in polluting labs. The crackdown on meth helped give us "bath salts," quasi-legal stimulants containing novel chemicals with unknown dangers, to which the government has responded with new prohibitions driven by new horror stories.

Instead of reflexive repression, Parsons recommends harm reduction, which aims to minimize the damage done by drug policies as well as drugs. Among other things, that means acknowledging the demand for stimulation and helping people satisfy it in ways that do not put them in jail, in the hospital, or in cautionary ads.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.