Drugs

Meth Panic! American Media's Drug Hysteria Vilifies Poor People

A new report by Dr. Carl Hart argues the meth panic is like crack panic all over again.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ robtek

You may have seen the billboards or Facebook ads, sponsored by the Montana Meth Project, depicting scabbed, wrinkled faces with rotting teeth and the words “Meth: Not even once,” plastered across the bottom of the frame. Or maybe you’ve heard the media horror stories about how addictive methamphetamine, or “meth,” can be and how recklessly it "destroys young lives."

It’s easy to fall for the emotional hysteria surrounding meth, since these days it's the drug warriors' scapegoat drug of choice, but there is no empirical evidence to support the claims that meth causes physical deformities, rots your teeth or that it’s even close to as addictive as it's made out to be, according to a new report.

Columbia University psychology professor Carl Hart—author of the book High Price—has released a new report via Open Society Foundation titled “Methamphetamine: Fact vs. Fiction and Lessons from the Crack Hysteria” to address the overstated perceptions of the problems associated with meth. He argues that the dangers of meth are exaggerated today just like the dangers of crack were blown out of proportion three decades ago.

“I just want people to understand that we’ve seen this movie before, so just be aware that’s what’s going on [with meth] and try not to fall into that trap,” he said.

Hart is known for previous studies focusing on crack cocaine and the overblown “crack scare” of the 80s.  Similar to what’s happening with meth now, crack cocaine was hyperbolized in mid-80s as being so irresistibly addictive that even first time users would fall prey to its wiles. The media warned of “crack-crazed” addicts and, despite the virtual lack of any scientific evidence for these claims, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act setting 100 times harsher penalties for crack than powder cocaine convictions (even though the two are essentially the same drug).

As Hart points out, we know now that the crack panic stemmed not from realistic concerns over the effects of crack, but from a systemic racism. The laws disproportionately targeted black people, who were more likely to use cocaine in its crack form because it was cheaper and easier to attain. During the 80s, a whopping 85 percent of people sentenced for crack cocaine offenses were black, despite the fact that the majority of users were white according to the US Sentencing Commission.

“Everybody now kind of gets that we screwed up with crack cocaine, and that crack cocaine was being used to vilify a certain group: black folks,” said Hart.

Now, methamphetamine has replaced crack as the big, bad drug. And this time around the targets of the smear campaign are poor white people, and gay people.

Hart’s study examines the available data on illicit methamphetamine, or “meth,” in an effort to dispel some of the myths about the effects of the drug and its national and international consequences.

The introduction of the report states, “The data show that many of the immediate and long-term harmful effects caused by [meth] use have been greatly exaggerated in a similar way in which the dangers of crack cocaine were overstated nearly three decades earlier.”

To assess the actual, direct effects of meth on human physiology and behavior, Hart conducted a series of laboratory studies in 2012. The studies were designed to document the immediate and short-term effects of the drug on measures of cognitive functioning, mood, sleep, blood pressure, heart rate and the drug’s addictiveness.

For a study to assess cognitive functioning, mood and sleep patterns, participants received varying double-blind doses of meth, meaning they didn’t know how much meth they were receiving, or whether they were receiving any at all. Participants were given a baseline battery test, then received doses of meth that could range from placebo to 50mg. The participants were reassessed on the battery test at predetermined time points for several hours after, and the results were charted.

The experiment found that after receiving meth, participants reported feeling more euphoric and their cognitive functioning was improved for about four hours. The drug also caused significant increases in blood pressure and heart rate that lasted for up to 24 hours. Hart's report notes that “while these elevations were statistically significant, they were well below levels obtained when engaged in a rigorous physical exercise, for example.”  The drug reduced the amount of time participants slept, but it didn’t keep people up for consecutive days, it didn’t dangerously elevate their vital signs and it didn’t impair their judgment.

To assess addictiveness, meth-dependent participants were given a choice between taking a big hit of meth (50mg) or $5 cash. They chose the drug about half of the time. But, when the amount of money went up to $20, participants almost never chose the drug. The results proved that meth is not so addictive that it impairs rational judgement.

“So, it if its not as bad as made out to be, how did we get to this place where we see meth as being so evil and destroying all these lives?” Hart asked. “The thing we have to understand is it’s associated with poor white folks.”

The report notes for example that in 1999, “then Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating characterized methamphetamine in this way:

“‘It’s a white trash drug — methamphetamines largely are consumed by the lower socio-economic element of white people and I think we need to shame it. ... Just like crack cocaine was a black trash drug and is a black trash drug.”

Hart notes that poor white people, and gay people, are two groups commonly stigmatized in American society. They’re also the two groups most commonly associated with meth use, so the fact that meth is vilified is no coincidence, he argues.

“Those are two groups that are despised in society, so anything they do that we can distinctly say is ‘what they do,’ is vilifying,” he said. “This just becomes another one of the tools to vilify the groups that we don’t like.”

Hart’s report also notes that, similar to the way crack was made out to be a different and much more dangerous drug than the powder cocaine commonly snorted from the tables and toilet seats of wealthy white people and rock stars, meth is made out to be severely worse than its sister amphetamines.

Like every other amphetamine, meth is a synthetic stimulant. It is approved in several countries, alongside d-amphetamine, to treat a variety of disorders including attention deficit hyperactive disorder, narcolepsy and obesity. As Hart’s report points out, “periodically there are statements in scientific and popular literature attesting to methamphetamine’s greater potency and ‘addictive potential,’ relative to other amphetamines.” But according to Hart’s report such statements are inconsistent with empirical evidence. As it so happens, meth is almost an identical drug to d-amphetamine. They both increase blood pressure, pulse, euphoria and desire to take the drug in a dose-dependent manner.

Hart’s report states that one reason for so many unfounded beliefs about meth is that it’s more easily available on the black market than other amphetamines, due to easier synthesis. According to internet searches and law enforcement personnel, which Hart cites, the ingredients for meth consist of a few common household products and some over-the-counter cold medicine.

Hart said it’s important to consider why certain people use certain drugs. For example, he says it’s clear why students use adderall, another amphetamine: it helps them stay awake and focus when cramming for finals.

“But once the study period and exams are over, we want to make sure they’re not using it recreationally, chronically,” he said.

When it comes to meth, it’s important to consider the reasons why people are using the drug in the first place.

“For people out in the poor communities, the communities that we care about when it comes to meth, we need to figure out why they’re using it and when they’re using it, and try to understand where their use becomes a problem,” he said. “I dont know. Maybe they work in factories or jobs that require they work when they should be sleeping. In that case it just comes down to making sure they’re attending to their sleep habits.”

The report notes that while the proponents of scare tactics argue that they’re successful based on short term results, over time such tactics tend to be unsuccessful ways to mitigate drug use. This is because drug users and their friends quickly get hip to how unrealistic and ridiculous the billboards and media reports actually are. They’re not based in fact, and they come off as phony, even laughable. Hart said a better way to mitigate drug use and its negative impacts is to be honest and approach it from a realistic, health-based perspective, asking “What is it we’re really concerned about when it comes to meth?”

Hart said the two major concerns with meth are sleeping and eating habits.

“When you don't sleep there are all kinds of psychological and physiological effects that could happen that are negative,” he said. “So, one of the things we can do is tell people we recognize the real concern with methamphetamine is sleep—decreasing sleep and chronic sleep loss. Therefore let’s make sure you're taking the drug at a time that’s not near bedtime. And if you are, and you’re having sleep disruption, maybe you should try and help them get some sleeping meds or something else to make sure they are sleeping.

“Also, we know one of the things that meth does is it disrupts food intake,” he continued. “People don’t eat as much. We want to make sure that people are continuing to eat and take care of themselves in that regard as well. So let them know that we understand its an important effect of the drug, but they still have got to eat. Those are the things that I would stress with methamphetamine first.”

Hart said it’s important to remember what we learned from the crack panic of the 80s when thinking about meth today, and to be rational when talking about drugs in general.

“The scientific literature on methamphetamine is replete with unwarranted conclusions, which has provided fuel for the implementation of draconian drug policies that exacerbate problems faced by poor people,” he said. “Like I said, we’ve seen this movie before.”

April M. Short previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort