Stimulants and Hallucinogens

A Closer Look at the "Meth Epidemic "

Newsweek's Latest Drug Crisis

Newsweek Meth Cover

Declining Meth Use

During the 1980s, Newsweek magazine played a prominent role in the construction of a national "epidemic" of concern about cocaine and other drugs at a time when the use of illegal substances was generally on the decline in the U.S. (Orcutt and Turner 1993). More recently, Newsweek has taken the lead in the construction of a new drug crisis with a dramatic cover story in its August 8, 2005 issue, "The Meth Epidemic." This story makes a number of shocking claims about dangers of methamphetamine addiction, health hazards, and exploding meth labs, and includes horrific photographs of victims who have been burned in explosions or pitifully disfigured by "meth mouth." However, despite the characterization of this problem as an "epidemic" on its cover, Newsweek curiously avoids any documentation of this image: data on changing rates of methamphetamine use or other longitudinal evidence of a growing crisis are missing from this article.

Jack Shafer, editor at large for the online magazine Slate, noted this curious omission of epidemiological evidence in an op-ed piece titled, "Meth Madness at Newsweek," which appeared only a few days after the publication of Newsweek's cover story. Although Newsweek mentions that the number of people who have tried methamphetamine runs into the millions, Slater points out that the "magazine doesn't establish whether those numbers are up or down! How can they claim an epidemic unless they've got the numbers?" He goes on to present evidence from a number of sources, including Monitoring the Future (MTF) data, that seriously challenges any claims about an "epidemic." Let's take a closer look at some of that evidence.

Monitoring the Future

As shown in the graph to the right, which is based on data from a December, 2005 MTF press release (http://www.monitoringthefuture.org), the prevalence of methamphetamine use during the previous 12 months by high school seniors declined by nearly half from 1999 (4.7%) to 2005 (2.5%). Similarly sharp declines in the annual prevalence of methamphetamine use are evident for 10th graders and 8th graders.

Although the MTF surveys did not ask separate questions about methamphetamine use in the 1970s and 1980s, both the monthly and annual prevalence of overall amphetamine use (including methamphetamines) were over two times higher in the early 1980s than they were in the early 2000s. For instance, whereas the annual prevalence of amphetamine use peaked at over 25 percent of high school seniors in 1981, this figure has generally stood at approximately 10 percent of seniors for the past decade, with a decline to slightly more than 8 percent in 2006.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH; http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/WebOnly.htm) offer a long-term perspective on trends in methamphetamine use in an older age group. The graph below depicts age-specific incidence rates for initial use of methamphetamine among young adults, ages 18-25. Following a peak in the early 1970s, the rate at which young adults initiated use of methamphetamine has generally declined over time, with the exception of a brief period of increasing incidence in the early 1990s. In sum, the best epidemiological data on drug use among young adults as well as adolescents show no objective signs of the "meth epidemic" that has been constructed by Newsweek and other claimsmaking groups in politics and the national media.

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