< Meth to the Madness


Friday, October 14, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If you've been anywhere near the news this season, you already know that meth is hot. By "meth," I mean methamphetamine - tina, crystal, ice - the drug that, according to the media, is being abused at an epidemic rate in this country. The fact that I know the shorthand is not because meth is actually part of my personal life, but because the stories leave the impression that it's just a matter of time until it is. Our show isn't equipped to answer whether meth coverage is appropriately ominous or simply hysterical, but Nick Gillespie, Editor-in-Chief of Reason magazine, says that historically it's the media that have the real drug problem. Nick, welcome to OTM.

NICK GILLESPIE: Thanks a lot for having me on.

BOB GARFIELD: First, you know, just for the record, I know you're a libertarian and you want the government off our backs, but you are not saying meth is harmless, meth is great, use meth for recreation. Am I correct?

NICK GILLESPIE: For the most part I agree with that. Meth or amphetamine, more broadly speaking, can be used in positive ways. The military uses it. Ritalin is a form of amphetamine. So there are actual positive uses of amphetamines, but generally speaking, nobody should be using drugs in an irresponsible way.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So why is the media's handling of drug use and the war on drugs an issue for Reason?

NICK GILLESPIE: We talk a lot at Reason about what I like to call the "new drug of choice story," which is a real kind of classic of the newspaper and magazine genre. And every couple of months we read stories about the new drug of choice. For a while it was crack cocaine. Then it was PCP, or angel dust. Now it's meth. Tomorrow it will be heroin and we'll learn that, you know, a toxic new form of heroin that's even more potent and cheaper and better and blah, blah, blah will be the new drug of choice. And then after that it'll be marijuana. Then it will be crack again, etcetera. I'm concerned about the "new drug of choice" story. It's a template which really showcases a lot of very cliché journalism, a lot of sloppy journalism. And I think it's mostly fueled not by actual social reality, such as a meth epidemic, which is not going on now, but rather it's fueled by and reflects various social anxieties.

BOB GARFIELD: But police reports of meth usage and meth arrests are way up, aren't they?

NICK GILLESPIE: No, actually they're not. And in terms of usage - this is something that's fascinating - the most recent federal figures on drug usage regarding meth date back to 2004, and they are basically the same or a little bit lower than they were in 2003 and 2002. And the federal government in its National Survey on Drug Use and Health actually says up front that there is not a real change in, in meth use.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. [CHUCKLES] Well, give me some examples, please, of meth reporting gone wild.

NICK GILLESPIE: Okay. There was the Newsweek story that came out in August, which is a kind of one-stop-shop for, you know, ludicrous claims. What it does is it, it will take a couple of examples of people whose lives have been screwed up by substance abuse, and that's all true. It sought to show that there was an epidemic but, in fact, there are no hard numbers in there about usage trends or anything like that. Last year in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, okay, which is a well-regarded paper, they quoted a nurse who said that she had heard of a "meth baby" born with an arm growing out of the neck. And the Minneapolis Star Tribune actually reported this. They did not find the baby, they did not find any record of the baby, but rather they report hearsay from a nurse who's talking about something she heard about. That type of very poorly-documented claim runs rampant throughout drug reporting in this country. Also over-reliance on law enforcement - reporters never document the claims. For instance, the New York Times had a story about "meth babies" a few months ago, and in response to that and a bunch of other stories like it, which all quoted law enforcement people saying that there was something called "meth babies" and that babies are born addicted to meth, about 100 drug researchers and medical experts at a group called Join Together wrote a public letter saying, you know, we have to change the way that we talk about drugs in this country because it just doesn't make sense.

BOB GARFIELD: Coverage of drugs has always been a bit hysterical.


BOB GARFIELD: As a young police reporter, I myself [CHUCKLES] tagged along on quite a few drug raids, including a meth lab, by the way - [BOTH AT ONCE]


BOB GARFIELD: - in about 1978, and was always surprised by the cops' estimate of the street value of the haul.


BOB GARFIELD: [CHUCKLES] It was always wildly inflated with a sort of Joe Friday - [BOTH AT ONCE]


BOB GARFIELD: - "this is what happens when you fool around with Mary Jane" kind of quality to it. And I guess we as reporters should be embarrassed about that. But where's the harm?

NICK GILLESPIE: Well, there's a lot of harm in this. First off, if you have hysterical over-reporting, both on the part of law enforcement and the media, everybody turns off. A great example of this is the Tennessee District Attorney's Association has a website called "Meth is Death," which they put up recently. I mean, this site is linked to prominently by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, so it's giving it its imprimatur on some level. But this Meth is Death site says that one in seven high school students will try meth. Okay? And follow the kind of math on this. One in seven high school students will try meth; 99 percent of first-time meth users are hooked after just the first try, and only five percent of meth addicts are able to kick it and stay away. So basically what we're looking at is about 13 percent of high schoolers are going to try meth and become meth addicts. And according to the site, the life expectancy of a habitual meth user is only five years. And this is on, you know, from district attorneys, and we're supposed to take this seriously. And what that means - there's about 20 million high school age kids in America - and what that means, there should be hundreds of thousands of people who are dying of meth-related deaths, you know, in their early 20s. And we know that that isn't true. And yet this type of, you know, bizarro claims and chains of association are out there, and this is what passes for official information about drugs. It's just ridiculous. The harms of those claims is that then it means that it's very hard to get through with actual meaningful information to people.

BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that a year does not go by where you don't pick up a copy of Newsweek and find some drug scare story. And I asked you, you know, okay, where's the harm in that? But what I was thinking is that we do, in fact, have an ongoing drug crisis, a chronic drug crisis in this country around alcohol, and yet the media coverage of it seems to be, you know, if not nonexistent, at least pretty thin.

NICK GILLESPIE: Well, I think we actually do talk about alcohol a lot but we talk about it in a more mature way and in a way that actually sheds light on how we should talk about drugs, which is instead of constantly talking about illegal or illicit drugs, as the government terms them - these substances are not merely illegal but immoral - if we talked about - not about demon rum or not about demon meth, but rather about people who have problems with substance abuse, I think we would have a more mature and just a richer discussion about drugs and substance abuse, which is really the issue.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Nick. Well, thank you very much.

NICK GILLESPIE: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Nick Gillespie is Editor-in-Chief of Reason magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

copyright 2005 WNYC Radio