More Meth Mania

The Today show jumped on the methamphetamine epidemic bandwagon with a recent segment on "Suburban Moms on Meth." Claiming that an increasing number of mothers are using methamphetamine, the show failed to present any evidence to support this notion.

For the record, among females 12 and older, methamphetamine use is stable, with 4.1 percent reporting having tried it, .3 percent (three-tenths of one percent) reporting use in the last year, and .1 percent (one-tenth of one percent) reporting past month use in 2003 according to the government's National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health.

In general, methamphetamine use among youth (which tends to foreshadow adult trends) shows a downward trend in all grades since the government's Monitoring the Future figures began looking at the drug in 1999.

Today also presented a classic example of what scientists call "the clinician's error." In an interview with a researcher from the Hazelden treatment center, Katie Couric asked whether recreational use of the drug was possible. The researcher replied that she'd "never seen" it.

But why would a treatment provider see a recreational user? Recreational users don't voluntarily seek treatment: why would they? And at least with adults, those forced into treatment through the criminal justice system are mainly addicts, not casual users.

The "clinician's error" occurs throughout medicine when clinical workers believe that those they treat for a condition are typical of people in the population with the condition. In fact, those who seek treatment are the worst cases – and their prognoses will look far less promising than if the disease was studied in the general population.

The photos Today aired of what it called "typical users" – which are genuinely shocking "before" and "after" pictures of addicts taken from police mug shots – represent this selection effect visibly. They do accurately show the rapid aging and skin problems common to methamphetamine addicts seen in treatment and by police; but they aren't an accurate picture of most users.

This is not to say that methamphetamine use isn't highly dangerous, nor to suggest that recreational use is a good idea; but the government's own statistics cited above show that the majority of methamphetamine users do not take it regularly.

At least the Today show did not report that meth addicts are untreatable or have a worse prognosis than other addicts. Couric asked about this, seemingly expecting to be told dire news. But the Hazelden researcher debunked the notion, noting that when crack was the hot drug, crack addicts were seen as incurable and that this was not true, either with crack or today's drug of the moment.

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