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Is Meth America's No 1 Drug Problem?
July 19, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
Survey of county law enforcement officials skews data for political ends, raises puzzling questions; but media succumbs to press-release "journalism."

The National Association of Counties (NACo) has come out with its latest methamphetamine report and, once again, most of the media has responded unskeptically.

Dozens of headlines around the country announced that meth is "still [the] No. 1 problem drug, "in the country, based on a survey of county law enforcement officials across 44 states. But how reliable was the primary data? What were law enforcement officials basing their responses on?

These questions have particular relevance given that treatment centers and surveys of drug use in the population do not find meth to be the biggest drug problem. Only seven percent of treatment admissions are related to methamphetamine, for example, while cocaine admissions account for double that and heroin and related drugs make up nearly 18 percent. Alcohol accounts for 40 percent.

Moreover, the Sentencing Project only just released a study claiming that “methamphetamine is among the least commonly used drugs” (only 0.2 percent of Americans are regular users) and that the rates of methamphetamine use have remained stable since 1999.

Also, how was it that a survey could find that half of county law enforcement officials believe meth to be a larger problem (more than the amount reporting cocaine, heroin and marijuana as their biggest problem combined) when many of the country's population centers (New York, for example), report than none of the people they arrest test positive for the drug.

Unfortunately, most news organizations didn’t find these questions interesting – nor did they note that the survey was a lobbying document, sponsored by the group in aid of its efforts to get more funding for methamphetamine anti-drug task forces.

The Associated Press account, which many news organizations, including the New York Times published, didn’t mention that both liberal and conservative groups have opposed further funding for such task forces due to poor oversight and efficacy, which has led to numerous debacles like one in Tulia, Texas. There, a corrupt agent's false claims resulted in the arrest of some 10 percent of the African-American population.

Meth is undoubtedly the number one problem in many rural areas and it clearly is more prevalent in the West than the East. But in order to drive national crime statistics the way crack cocaine did, it would need to pick up more numbers than the rural areas alone can provide and the trends just don't seem to point in the direction of its doing so (for example, the youth surveys which show declining use).

Kudos to the San Jose Mercury News, however, for its use of McClatchy-Tribune wire copy in some editions (though others curiously seemed to cut these grafs). The fuller story included the following:

“While conducted scientifically, the survey is also a political document intended to rally support for additional federal spending. In some cases, the statistics are skewed to make a point.

County officials, for instance, noted that "100 percent" of counties in California and Arizona reported that meth is the No. 1 drug problem.

Buried on the back of the report is the fact that only three counties in California and one county in Arizona were part of the survey. The report also fails to note that more counties identified meth as the No. 1 drug problem last year - 58 percent of those surveyed, compared with 48 percent this year.

The meth-fighting grants that county officials favor have come under fire from federal auditors. Many appear misdirected because of political pressure, a Justice Department Office of Inspector General auditor warned earlier this year.”

As that old journalistic saw goes, “follow the money.” But if you can’t follow the money, why not, at least, read the actual study, as the reporter for McClatchy-Tribune did? And from there, it wouldn't be such a stretch to do a google search for some context, would it? If press releases were reliable summaries of infallible studies, we wouldn’t need reporters to transcribe them for publication.