July 11, 2005

Meth Use: What Are The Numbers?

In the wake of this story in the Monday Times—on the horrific effects of methamphetamine abuse on the children of users—it's hard not to believe that this new epidemic is the most horrible thing ever and needs to be stopped at all costs. And from everything I've heard, that's true. But the article, notably enough, doesn't quite say give us any good solid statistics here—on the scope of the problem, or whether it's actually getting worse, or what have you. Let's see. The Times does note that the number of children admitted into foster homes, because of meth abuse, seems to be on the uptick in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, and North Dakota. Fine, but that rise could be due to any number of things—a higher number of raids on meth labs, and hence more children found, for instance; a greater awareness of the drug; or maybe a change in recording statistics—state-level reporting "can be spotty," after all, as the article admits.

Unfortunately, the available drug-use statistics are so awful, it's hard to get a sense for what's going on with this meth crisis, beyond anecdotes. According to SAMHSA, between 2002 and 2003—the last year for which user data is available—methamphetamine use actually declined from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds. Okay, whatever. This isn't a terribly important statistic, I think, since the main problem is usually the number of heavy users, not the total fraction of the population using a given drug. Obviously it's nice that fewer younger kids are using meth, since that might—might—reduce the pool of potential future heavy users. But it's not the main thing. Meanwhile, SAMHSA reports that total methamphetamine use skyrocketed between 1992 and 1998, but "[s]ince then, there have been no statistically significant changes." Um, that seems like an important fact to note. It's possible, obviously, that use has shot up between 2003 and the present day. No idea why that might be, but it's possible. Or perhaps the media has just started following more closely a problem that has always existed, and is bad, but not getting worse over time.

Alternatively, insofar as there might be an increasing problem, it could be that the total quantity consumed of meth is going up—meaning more heavy users, along with heavier users, and hence, an increase in problems like child abuse. But there's no way of knowing whether total consumption is actually going up—SAMHSA doesn't keep track of this statistic. Nice. Nor do we know if there are more heavy meth users now than, say, five years ago. This matters because the actual character of the problem affects the type of anti-drug strategy that's needed. (If you're worried about curbing total consumption rather than curbing the fraction of the population using a given drug, then treatment tends to be more cost-effective than law enforcement, as RAND analysts and others have shown.)

Then there's the problem of trying to figure out whether supply restrictions on cold medicine, as in Oklahoma, are really having a positive effect on the meth market. (Although one should note that if states can restrict meth ingredients in a pretty painless manner—at worst, people with colds need to hit up the pharmacist for their pseudoephedrine—well, there's no reason not to do that, although the all-powerful drug lobby may argue otherwise. The latter is a story that I wish would get more coverage, incidentally.) What we do know, however, is that sheriffs around the country are asking the Bush administration for more law enforcement money on the problem. But is that a good indication of what's going on? I honestly have no idea. If history's any guide, it's hard not to be wary of media reporting on drug epidemics. Already, it seems, we've been subject to misleading cover stories on the efficacy of treatment for meth addiction.

Anyway, consider this a preliminary post. I'll try to get into this in more detail tomorrow and over the coming week; so feel free to point out anything I've overlooked or botched. One other question: Would people use meth less if we just handed out pot for them to smoke? (The, um, "serious" way of phrasing this: Has the crackdown on marijuana led people to seek out meth as a cheap alternative?) And since pot is infinitely less harmful to everyone involved, doesn't this seem like the cheapest, most immediate, and obviously best solution? I'm serious, actually.
-- Brad Plumer 3:47 AM || ||