The opioid crisis is getting all the headlines as overdose deaths keep growing every year at a shocking 15-20 percent clip. However, recent data showing a 100 percent increase in deaths from methamphetamines (a/k/a meth) is making politicians stand up and take notice. We’re now fighting a major battle on two fronts.
The biggest problem is what the two drugs share in common. Since around 2008, the purity of both heroin and meth have shot up, while the prices have come down. It’s no longer the warped science teacher gone rogue, like portrayed on Breaking Bad. Large Mexican cartels have taken the business from back-room labs and ramped it up to an industrial-sized, large-scale business. They’re simply passing their savings on to the consumer, taking a lesson from Big Tobacco, hoping to hook people in the process. In the meanwhile, US drug policy is focusing most of its resources on enforcement and incarceration, rather than trying to curb demand for the product, via prevention, diversion and treatment programs.
Meth: The Problem
Meth was first recognized as a problem in the early 2000s when it became easy and popular to make, using over the counter cold medicine that contained ephedrine. Back then, such medications could be bought directly off the shelf, just like any other over-the-counter medicine. As a result, Congress passed a law in 2005 limiting the amount of ephedrine that could be purchased and the products were placed behind the counter, requiring a signature for registration purposes. The government thought the problem was then licked, and for a while it was, but, as we have seen, it just moved south of the border.
In 2013, meth passed marijuana as the most federally prosecuted drug, by number of cases, in America. More than twice as many meth cases were brought in 2016 than were brought for heroin. At the same time, law enforcement seizures of meth were four times higher than heroin by quantity. Meth offenders made up the highest percentage of drug offenders in 27 states in the calendar year 2015. What we’re discovering, is that many people addicted to opioids are now also turning to meth as a solution. Some do so to try and take the edge off the opioid high, while others have made the switch because there’s a much lower chance of overdose. Regardless of the reason, it’s a troubling development.
Meth is also exacting a huge social cost. Government agencies in many communities are running out of places to put children removed from the homes of addicted parents. Dunn County, Wisconsin is indicative of the problem, with out-of-home placements of children surging over 800 percent. Parents of nearly one-third of the children in Montana’s foster-care system are methamphetamine users. The crux of the issue is best summed up by one mother’s quote, “Meth makes you forget you ever had children.” Unfortunately, strict enforcement also has the unintended negative side-effect of keeping addicts from seeking help because they’re afraid of losing their kids. This creates a terrible Catch-22 with no easy answer.
There are some other measured advances that also give us hope. Under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, federal spending to combat the opioid epidemic has increased 542% at Health and Human Services and 113% at the Justice Department. The 21st Century Cures Act approved $1 billion of additional spending toward this problem, over a two-year period. Even recent Republican proposal on healthcare proposed as much as $45 billion to specifically combat opioid abuse, spread out over 10 years. But, as their fellow Republican and likely 2020 primary candidate, Ohio Governor John Kasich noted, it’s “like spitting in the ocean,” not nearly enough. The issue has become so pervasive that even the Federal Reserve Bank and large investment banks are weighing in on the subject. Goldman Sachs came out with a recent report indicating that US workforce, and economy in general, is being dragged down by opioid abuse; something I wrote about back in June.
Another, less reported, reason for Meth’s growth can be understood by simply talking to its users. Meth, Mollies, MDMA and other variations of the drug create a high that has been described by users as “a pleasure unlike I’ve ever known.” This euphoria creates the feeling that doing everything on Meth feels infinitely better, from sex to something as simple as taking a drink of water. The problem is that Meth creates an obsessiveness unlike any other drug while taking a tremendous toll on the body. Self care drops off to the point that hygiene and dental care grinds to a halt. Many Meth-heads, as these users are commonly referred to, can be found missing many, if not all of their teeth. According to the National Drug Threat Assessment in 2016, nearly a third of law enforcement officials ranked methamphetamine as the biggest drug threat in their area, with the southeastern and southwestern states referring to it as the biggest threat. Meth also leads to much higher arrest rates than most other drugs because it is a stimulant that increases energy and libido, and used at high levels for long periods of time can lead to paranoia and aggression. A 2010 study in Sydney, Australia found that meth users were almost twice as likely as heroin users to have committed violent acts during the previous year.