Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Evil Chemical

Okay, I did my duty and watched the Frontline program on meth last night. It's basically factually accurate, with a couple of significant oversimplifications, but very shallow on analysis. That's forgiveable, I suppose, since they had to cram the basic into 50 minutes, but they did leave some important stuff out.

First of all, methamphetamine is not just something that people cook up in illegal labs out of cold pills. It is an FDA approved pharmaceutical which was first sold under the brand name Methedrine. Lenny Bruce's doctor gave him a prescription for injectable Methedrine ampules, which ultimately killed him. As far as I know methamphetamine is seldom if ever prescribed in the U.S. any more, but its cousins dextroamphetmine (Dexedrine), amphetamine, and Adderall are still approved for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and narcolepsy.

The Frontline piece noted the correlation between the purity of meth available on the street and indicators of the prevalence of addiction. It implied that when the available drug is less pure, it is less addictive, but that is highly doubtful. If an intoxicant is less pure, people will simply use more of it (viz. "light" cigarettes). In fact, the purity of the available street drug is probably just a surrogate for general availability. If it's harder to get, then probably fewer people will start using it.

But that's where the real problem with the story begins. It told of meth's seemingly relentless march from the west coast to the east, but the fact is meth still hasn't made it to most of the eastern U.S. -- it's a problem in the economically undeveloped, rural southeast, but not in the northeast. And on its way across the country, it didn't particularly come through Chicago and St. Louis, it came through rural areas. The exception is that there is a sub-culture of meth use among gay men in some cities.

Amphetamines were, and as far as I know still are, commonly used by truck drivers on long hauls: (And if you give me weed, whites and wine, and you show me a sign, I'll be willing, to be moving. "Whites" are Dexedrine.) Also used by college students cramming for exams. I don't know about the truck drivers, but the college students seldom become addicted.

The point of all this is that drug abuse and addiction aren't caused directly and simply by the chemicals themselves. These problems arise from a confluence of culture, economics, and individual psychology -- the latter itself influenced by the first two. Most people who ever use an illicit drug, including amphetamines, do not become addicts. That may not be true of tobacco but there was, until recently at least, very strong cultural support for tobacco use. Back in the '60s, when hippies were using hallucinogens and marijuana, meth -- speed -- had a very bad reputation in hippie culture and no respectable hippie would go near it. "Speed Kills," was the slogan. Truckers and bikers did meth.

Today, it's still part of rural culture. As you could have deduced from the Frontline piece, although they never connected the dots, one factor in the problem is the lack of economic opportunity in much of the rural U.S. People start cooking meth for the same reason they join the Army -- there's no other way to make a living. And people start using it, and get hooked, for more or less the same reason -- they have nothing better to do with their lives. Deep psychic pain can also be a major reason. As you could also pick up from the Frontline piece, if you were paying close attention, people who manage to give up the drug usually haven't begun to solve their problems -- they still need to go back and deal with whatever it was that they were running away from in the first place.

It does happen to be true that meth is one drug of abuse for which relatively effective supply side restrictions may be possible. But the problem of drug addiction is not fundamentally about supply. And that's where the Frontline documentary came down wrong, in my view.

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