Methamphetamine: SAMHSA Release Misleads on Treatment Numbers, Press Bites 3/10/06

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In a March 2 press release, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) sent out the alert that the number of people seeking treatment for methamphetamine abuse had increased dramatically in the 10 years between 1993 and 2003. The story-line was a natural, and the widely-subscribed Associated Press picked it up with the headline "Report: More People Seeking Meth Treatment." But neither SAMSHA nor the AP bothered to point out that much of the increase in those "seeking" treatment was driven by the criminal justice system.

In other words, a big part of the reason the number of people in treatment for meth is up is because police are arresting them and the courts are sending them away to be cured in larger numbers. We saw a similar distorting dynamic when drug czar John Walters seized on an increase in teens in treatment for marijuana abuse without noting that nearly three-quarters of them were referred by the courts or the schools.

As drug war media critic Jack Shafer of Slate.com noted in a blistering piece last Friday, SAMSHA didn't say anything in its press release about why people were in treatment for meth except to quote SAMSHA Director Charles Currie as calling meth "undeniably a uniquely destructive drug." To find out why people were in treatment, one had to go to the report the press release was based on, "Trends in Amphetamine/Methamphetamine Admissions to Treatment, 1993-2003," and read all the way down to the final two paragraphs.

There you find that only one out of four people admitted to treatment for meth in 2003 were actually "seeking" it by asking for it. By contrast, 51% of all admissions for meth came from the criminal justice system, a figure that has steadily increased along with law enforcement attention in the past decade.

According to SAMSHA, some 28,000 people were treated for meth in 1993, or 2% of all drug treatment admissions. By 2003, that number had climbed to 136,000, or 7% of all admissions. Clearly, the number of meth admissions has gone up, but that is not unexpected when the longitudinal surveys on drug use concur that meth use rose in the mid- and late-1990s before reaching a plateau early this decade.

The AP story, versions of which have appeared in more than 300 newspapers, opened like this: "WASHINGTON -- Drug treatment centers have seen a substantial rise in the number of people seeking help for methamphetamine abuse, a report released Thursday said. As trafficking in the highly addictive drug has spread across the country, the number of meth users admitted to substance abuse clinics more than quadrupled from 1993 to 2003, according to a review by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration."

But Slate's Shafer had an alternative opening, one that didn't swallow the SAMSHA press release hook, line, and sinker: "WASHINGTON -- A new government report today showed that reducing the number of methamphetamine drug arrests would sharply reduce the number of people in drug abuse treatment..."

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Issue #426 -- 3/10/06

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Feature: Five Years On, California's Proposition 36 Claims Success, But Faces New Struggles | Feature: Pilot Methadone Maintenance Program for Jail Inmates Off to Good Start, New Mexico Officials Say | Web Site: A Friendly Reminder About the Drug War Chronicle Archives Page -- New Marijuana-Only Archives Now Available Too | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Methamphetamine: Federal Bill Passes as Part of USA Patriot Act | Methamphetamine: SAMHSA Release Misleads on Treatment Numbers, Press Bites | Medical Marijuana: Steve Kubby Freed From Jail -- Lost 25 Pounds in Six Weeks | Canada: Another Week, Another Attack on the Cannabis Industry | Europe: Edinburgh "Drug Czar" Says Time to Consider Prescribing Heroin | Africa: Morocco's Campaign Against Hashish Growing Has Peasants Grumbling, Protesting | Southwest Asia: Afghan Opium Crop to Expand This Year, UN Says | The Debate: Reformers and a Prohibitionist Respond to Favorable Wall Street Journal Editorial | Media Scan: Reformers and UN Drug Chief Debate on the BBC This Weekend | Weekly: This Week in History | Job Opening: Communications Assistant, Drug Policy Alliance, New York | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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