`Crystal meth crisis' should be taken with a grain of salt

August 10, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - "America's Most Dangerous Drug," blares the cover story in Newsweek. If you haven't been paying attention, you might wonder what drug the magazine has in mind.

Tobacco, which kills more than 400,000 people each year? Alcohol, which contributes to thousands of traffic fatalities? Crack, which spawned a wave of violent crime in the 1990s? Heroin, which was supposedly an epidemic a few years ago?

Answer: none of the above. America's most dangerous drug of the week is methamphetamine, better known as crystal meth. It may sound odd that this new scourge is more hazardous than all those other drugs, which have not gotten any less malignant. But the drug war is sort of like horror movies: A new monster is always needed, and the new monster is never much different from the old one.

Crystal meth is blamed for all sorts of ills. Addicts allegedly neglect their children, beat their spouses, rot out their teeth, ruin their health, commit burglaries and accidentally set themselves on fire in crude home laboratories. All of this may be true. But we've heard similar lurid tales about other drugs, none of which quite lived up to the hype.

Once it was marijuana. Then heroin. Later, the unstoppable menace was cocaine.

But it's not even clear that there is a meth epidemic. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which does a huge annual survey on drug use, says that in 2003, the last year for which it has data, there was no increase in methamphetamine use from the previous year.

Nor is meth all that addictive. SAMHSA reports that 5.2 percent of all Americans age 12 and older have tried the drug at least once. But only 0.3 percent are currently using it. That means the addiction rate is no more than 1 in 17. The addiction rate for tobacco, by contrast, is more than 1 in 3. For alcohol, it's about 1 in 12.

Maybe that's why even some members of the Bush administration are rolling their eyes. A spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy complained to Newsweek that a lot of people are "`crying meth' because it's a hot new drug."

But when a panic erupts, the government tends to fall back on old weapons, even if they haven't worked very well before. The fight against meth consists mainly of two approaches: seizing home labs where the drug is made and restricting sales of over-the-counter medicines that can be converted into the drug.

Neither holds much promise. If you crack down on production of meth here in America, users will look for sources elsewhere. Already, half of the stuff consumed here comes from Mexico.

Recently, Oregon passed a law requiring a prescription for common over-the-counter drugs, such as Sudafed, that contain pseudoephedrine, a primary ingredient in homemade meth. That will certainly inconvenience people with colds and allergies, who spend $1.4 billion a year on drugs containing PSE. Some of them will have to pay for a doctor visit just to get a garden-variety remedy such as Claritin-D or Alka-Seltzer Plus.

But will tighter controls curb drug abuse? Not likely. After Oklahoma passed a law requiring that PSE drugs be sold only by pharmacists from behind the counter, it saw a 90 percent drop in lab seizures. Unfortunately, it was a dubious victory. Users didn't go straight but switched to meth smuggled from Mexico.

"Our problem hasn't gone away," Oklahoma City police Lt. Tom Terhune told the Associated Press. "The problem that's gone away is the meth labs."

The government can't save us from methamphetamine. But given the benefit of knowledge gained from sad experience, we can save ourselves.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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