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Somewhat below the radar of popular concern, methamphetamine (aka crystal meth, crank, ice, glass, etc) continues its increasingly destructive spread across America:
Around the country, law-enforcement officials say methamphetamine use has become an epidemic. Federal officials estimate there are 1.5 million regular meth users in the United States today. As of 2003, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 12.3 million Americans had tried methamphetamine at least once - up nearly 40 percent over 2000 and 156 percent over 1996.
But the impact ranges beyond meth users to crime victims, since addicts typically steal to support their addiction. Most distressing, experts say, may be the thousands of children who are neglected or abused by meth users. Social service agencies around the country report increases in out-of-home placements of children because of meth, and a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that 10 percent of users were introduced to meth by their parents or other family members. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, children were present at 20 percent of all meth lab busts last year.
The impact on children may be connected to the fact that women are more likely to use meth than other illegal drugs. For one thing, the drug is associated with weight loss. One federal survey of people arrested for all crimes found that 11.3 percent of women had used meth within the prior month compared with 4.7 percent of men.
At a workshop in Portland, Ore., last week, White House deputy drug czar Scott Burns called meth "the most destructive, dangerous, terrible drug that's come along in a long time."
Those on the front lines of the war on drugs agree. A recent survey of 500 law-enforcement agencies by the National Association of Counties finds that 87 percent have seen increases in meth-related arrests in the past three years. Most county sheriffs now say meth is their main drug problem, connected to increases in robberies, burglaries, domestic violence, assaults, identity thefts, and child neglect.
What started out as a local problem on the West Coast has slowly begun to make its way east, with major meth epidemics springing up all throughout the Midwest and the Southeast, particularly in Appalachia, but not yet in the Northeast, at least outside of the gay community, where meth use is now a truly national crisis.
Meth was, for a long time, a fairly minor drug, produced and sold by white biker gangs on the West Coast. Yet, in the last ten years, it has suddenly begun to skyrocket in popularity, as knowledge of cooking methods has been disseminated throughout the country and as Mexican drug cartels have begun to produce it on an industrial scale, with the result that Mexico, too, is seeing a growing problem of meth addiction. Unlike drugs like marijuana, cocaine, or heroin, which involve processing natural plants (and thus require reasonably long harvest periods) or ecstasy, which requires reasonably advanced chemical knowledge to produce, methamphetamine can be produced using products that are available from your typical Wal-Mart, with little specialist knowledge, so that even the most addled tweaker is capable of, with the right ingredients, cooking up their own supply.
This is part of what has made meth so difficult for law enforcement to tackle, because there are two supply streams; one is the industrial-scale production of the various Mexican drug gangs, and the other is the legion of small-timers operating in trailers, motel rooms, apartments, garages and elsewhere throughout the United States. In this respect, it can be seen as an asymmetric threat similar, in a way, to modern Islamist terrorism, which involves both international organizations such as the groups responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid train bombings, and homegrown actors seemingly unconnected to international structures, such as Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer of Theo van Gogh, and, potentially, the London bombers of two weeks ago.
For the most part, the typical meth addict is a member of the white working-class, usually living in rural areas or small towns (hence the occassional nickname of "trailer park crack"). The spread of methamphetamine addiction has led to steep increases in crime rates in many formerly peaceful and safe communities. Meth-related crime has also, in parts of the country, been the main factor behind steep increases in the number of whites going to prison. This can be seen in, among other places, Minnesota and Arkansas, where meth-related crimes have been responsible for a surge in the white prison population, such that for the first time in decades both of these states have white majorities within their corrections systems.
Washington's Kitsap County is the sort of place that meth has really sunk its claws into: mostly white, mostly blue-collar. Two years ago the local paper, the Kitsap Sun, published an exhaustive series of articles on how crystal meth had ravaged the local community. It's quite a grim read; families where the parents and children all get high on meth together, massive cleanup costs for contaminated properties, overflowing local jails, spikes in all kinds of crimes by addicts desperate to pay for their fix.
Meth's urban inroads so far have been mostly limited to the gay community and to big cities on the West Coast, which has the most longstanding meth problem. In the case of the gay community, meth has become intertwined with both the underground dance and sex subcultures, with the rise of meth use leading to increasingly risky sexual behavior on the part of some gay men, with the result that STD infection rates are once again climbing among sexually active gay men.
What I find interesting is that, despite the explosion of meth addiction in recent years it seems to have taken far longer than crack in the 1980's to really make an impression on the national consciousness, and it seems to have made little impact on popular culture. I have a couple of ideas as to why this is so. For one thing, it has not really touched the East Coast yet, where most of the news media is based. All of the tv networks are based in New York, as are most of the big news magazines and the most famous paper in the nation, The New York Times. The major media, for the most part, only really focuses on the rest of the country as it needs to, and meth, happening as it does in fairly out-of-the-way places, is not really the sort of story that is easy to tackle from a New York mindset.
With crack, it was different. It was the inner cities of the major urban centers that were first affected. If you were in and around a major American city in the middle of the 1980's the effects of crack on the urban environment were unavoidable, even if you lived in a nice upper-middle class neighborhood. Crack's arrival on the American scene manifested itself in a dramatic uptick in crime, with skyrocketing murder rates as newly-formed drug gangs fought over turf, and massive spikes in robberies as desperate addicts set out to pay for their fix. There is also no question in my mind that the seriousness with which the crack epidemic was quickly seen came about as a result of its racial associations, in that both the street-level dealers and most of the user base were, at least initially, overwhelmingly black.
The crack tsunami that hit urban black America in the 1980's also came at the end of a long period of increasing social disfunction in the inner city. The sort of places that crack hit the hardest the earliest were areas that had been hit hard by family breakdown (seen particularly clearly in the dramatic increase in black illegitimacy rates from the mid-1960's to the mid-1980's), white flight (which heavily impacted on city services by draining much of the tax base that municipalities were used to relying on), and the disappearance of the sort of good-paying, relatively low-skill industrial work that had previously pulled generations of white immigrants from Europe out of poverty in the northern cities. It seems clear, too, that crack ultimately took such a hold on the national imagination because it played, quite graphically, to the terror that many American whites feel about the black inner city, fears that have always been part of how white Americans have looked at their darker countrymen.
But if poor urban blacks are feared, then poor rural whites are ignored, except for when they serve an unconnected political purpose, whether that is being sneered at by liberals for being backwards and racist, or lionized by conservatives for being the Realest of Real Americans. Drug-related crime and violence just isn't part of the prism through which they are viewed in America, and I think this shows in how little meth has broken through from real life into popular culture. Crack quickly became a staple of cop shows, cop movies, and all manner of 'gritty' entertainment in the 1980's, whereas crystal has been strangely absent to the point where, off of the top of my head, I can only think of the movie Spun as being really focused on the meth subculture, and a few episodes of West Coast-based cop shows like The Shield. In music, too, crystal seems to have not made much of an impact, at least lyrically, on country and heavy metal, the two main sounds of America's white working class; certainly not to the degree that the crack trade impacted on hip-hop lyricism from the rise of gangsta rap in the late 1980's onwards.