20 January 2006

The Meth Myth

I've been thinking about posting on this topic for some time, but never got around to doing it properly. Rather than procrastinate, I'll be derivative. The issue: Methamphetamines.

Talk Left has this post on the topic, and exhaustive background is available at Wikipedia. This drug is the latest battleground in the drug wars. It is, according to our guardians of civic virtue the WORST. DRUG. EVER. followed closely by that other evil scourge, marijuana.

Except, that it isn't. Methamphetamines are very close cousins of amphetamines. Indeed, when you take meth, your body makes amphetamines and a very little something extra. We give amphetamines to school kids who are hyper and can't concentrate, under the trade name Ritalin, and they can concentrate and go on to be productive citizens (this is controversial, but I don't think anyone in that debate is claiming that Ritalin is turning them into manical monsters). We give it to soldiers getting ready to go out on the battlefield and pilots getting ready to fly combat missions. It was invented to reduce appetite and it does do that. It keeps one awake in a manner not all that different from caffine. Methampetamine is also a central nervous system stimulant and as recently as the 1950s had many accepted medical uses. Like most drugs, in moderate doses it can affect people in ways that are not socially destructive, not especially prone to causing out of control dependency that destroys users lives, and at times, is an appropriate therapy for people whose body chemistry is slightly out of wack, something far more common than many people realize.

I suspect that a significant force behind rising meth use (and there is real doubt that it even is rising) that you have people who are not connected with the respectable medical establishment who are self-medicating. In all likelihood, many uses, if they had health insurance and an upper middle class outlook, could be prescribed drugs that heal that ailments they try to address with meth.

This isn't to say that the prevailing culture of illegal methamphetamine use is a good thing. I don't think that even the most diehard proponent of drug legalization thinks that it is desirable to have lay people making meth in home labs, as they often do now, as it produces some seriously toxic chemicals and not infrequently leads to devistating explosions. Manufacturing drugs is one of those things one shouldn't try at home. Like a great many drugs that have legitimate medical uses, it is something that when used inappropriately can cause addition and some people are predisposed towards becoming addicted to it. Hard core addicts use doses that no doctor would ever prescribe for any purpose, to their own detriment, and often use drugs that are impure and expose them to a variety of risks due to that impurity.

Also, of course, black markets, no matter what is sold, are bad for the neighborhood where they are conducted, routinely producing all manner of violence and anti-social conduct as participants gird themselves against police busts and try to keep people honoring their contracts without courts to adjudicate the matter. Any form of vice (i.e. crime consisting of commerce without out an obvious victim in the transaction itself), almost always leads to organized criminal enterprises that often conduct activities well beyond their primary money generators, unsavory characters armed with guns providing security for the operations, sharp dealing, intimidation of potential witnesses, and a law enforcement mindset that is prone to using extreme methods to stop it because they don't receive the kind of citizen cooperation that they benefit from when investigating other kinds of crime. Black markets also routinely feature prices far higher than legitimate markets, thus pushing people who want to products offered there to resort to illegal means, or simply legal but extremely unwise extremes, in order to be able to afford them.

But, rather than being the worst drug ever, there is good reason to believe that a public health and regulation orientation, similar to that which this country has taken with alcohol and tobacco, along with a health care system that pays more attention to mental health, so that people don't feel an urgent need to self-medicate, may be effective than the current war on drugs mentality that tries to demonize the drug. Nancy Reagan's exhortations to the contrary notwithstanding, a sensible drug abuse problem policy is not a simple matter.


Anonymous said...

I read your posts a lot, and I generally agree with a lot of what you have to say, but -- to be blunt -- you have completely missed the boat on this post. Not only that, the mere suggestion that Meth might not be all that bad is an incredibly reckless and irresponsible suggestion.

Why do I say this? Because I've seen the direct effects of meth in society. I'm an attorney who spends a pretty big chunk of my time working as a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem in Dependency and Neglect actions in Southern Colorado. I've seen parents involved in a wide variety of drugs, from barbituates to cocaine, from marijuana to alcohol. Nothing -- and I mean NOTHING -- is more deadly and harmful than the scourge of methamphetamines.

More than half of all D&N cases in many rural counties now involve meth use. I've seen dozens of these cases, and in only ONE case (a case where the Mom said the discovered meth use was her first time, and I believe that) did the parent(s) choose their child over their addiction to meth.

While lots of young women are attracted to meth because they think it will help them lose weight, what they don't realize is that meth ages people severely. I've seen 32-year old mothers who would easily pass for 65. Users' teeth rots, and they get huge sores all over their skin.

This is not an issue of "self-medicating," and it is completely misleading to attempt to break down the chemical components and argue that meth is only a step away from legal cold medication. It isn't and this post ignores the reality of meth, what it does to the brain, the body, and families all across rural Colorado!

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I don't think that my post denies that the status quo is a bad one. As used by addicts, with ridiculously high doses and patterns of use that create a high risk of addition, it does lead one to ruin, as I acknowledge.

I also am not making the argument that it is one step away from legal cold medication. Pseudo-ephidrine (Sudafed) is what is used to make meth in home labs, but my argument is not that it is similar to Sudafed. My argument is that it is similar to amphetamines, which it is. Amphetamines are not, however, very similar at all to Sudafed in its effect.

But, some of the bad effects you describe, such as tooth rot, are not inherent in the drug itself. It derives from how it is used in the illegal drug culture. It isn't at all apparent that in a more clinical context, that many of the problems you have observed would arise.

Also, once one is an addict, yes, you take the drug because you are an addict. But, that begs the question of what is driving people to become addicts in the first place. The discontent that drives one to use meth in the first place may be entirely different than the addiction that drives one to use it later.

The key point is to recognize that the problem is not the drug itself, but the problems that arise from its illegality and abuse.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with the points laid out by the first commenter. The hypotheticals of what causes meth users to get started are meaningless once they do. Any attempt to derisively link enforcement against meth to marijuana criminalization simply plays into the drug-warriors' hands. The fact is that there is no objective comparison between the effects and damage of pot versus speed.

I'm trying not to get offended by your inference that meth users' teeth are rotting out of their heads due to some ill-defined membership in the "illegal drug culture." Is that some kind of "druggies are just dirty people" stereotype you're promulgating? If so, someday you might be surprised to learn how many clean-cut, hygienic suburbanites all around you are being quietly devoured by meth. Have you looked at their teeth? It's a known side-effect, no matter how much you brush and floss.

Moreover, you claim that side-effects like tooth decay may not occur in a "more clinical context." I assume that also means access to a grade of meth above that made in somebody's bathtub or kitchen. Perhaps that setting would ameliorate some of the problems associated with this home-made pharmaceutical, but that's not where abusers get the stuff.

What makes people use meth the first time? Many reasons, but your median speedfreak is usually white, poor, and rural. It takes one moment of weakness in the face of an already bleak life to try speed, and the first use physiologically compels the second. Once hooked, meth changes people. I've watched it happen to immediate family members who today can't be saved. They're done. Their productive lives are ended, they abandon their kids without a moment's remorse, they commit secondary crimes to support their addiction, and await their inevitable date with our warehouse criminal justice system.

Your argument that street meth not as bad as advertised because it is chemically similar to prescription amphetamines like Ritalin is weakest of all. When your kid is sick, do you give him/her children's Tylenol, or do you try to force-feed him thousands of milligrams of acetaminophen? Would you buy that medicine in a drug store, or cook it in your bathtub?

Look, I'm a strong supporter of marijuana decriminalization. I believe the drug war in the United States is a duplicitous failure that has destroyed more lives than it has saved. But I stop well short of attempting to justify or excuse the singularly destructive abuse of meth. The fact is, meth is a grave threat to rural America, the addiction is at least as pernicious and devastating as other "hard" drugs like heroin and coke, and it was ignored for years by the DEA because there was no sexy foreign policy component (some say also because the users aren't statistically dark enough). To ignore it or treat it like relatively-harmless pot as we sort through the wreckage of our nation's broken narcotics policy would be a terrible mistake.