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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.

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