Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s Note: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s coverage of the methamphetamine epidemic didn’t end with Breaking Bad. Here to comment on the history of meth epidemics is Nicholas Parsons, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut University and author of Meth Mania (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013).
The book is about the social and cultural history of methamphetamine in the United States. There are two main themes the book takes up.
One of them is a history of the national media coverage of methamphetamine by major news magazines like Time and Newsweek, major newspapers like the New York Times, and television news broadcast by the three major networks. The second theme concerns changes in drug policy going back to the early 1900s, and how different drug laws have unintentionally and indirectly impacted the methamphetamine problem.
The book focuses on these two themes separately, but also examines the interplay between them. For example, the three major historical waves of national news attention towards methamphetamine (“Methedrine” from 1967-1971, “ice” in 1989, and “crystal meth” from 1995-2006) were all followed by legislative acts designed to deal with synthetic stimulant problems. I argue many of these policy changes have led to more harm than good. For instance, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 seems to have led to a decrease, albeit temporarily, in domestic “meth labs” where the drug is haphazardly manufactured. However, the black market for meth has evolved to meet the continuing demand, and what we’ve seen is a greater involvement of foreign suppliers, who are capable of producing more potent meth. Also, the relatively recent popularity of “bath salts” (i.e., synthetic cathinones) is likely due in part to the reduction of methamphetamine availability afforded by the 2005 law. When people cannot obtain meth, they will often replace their habit with more readily available stimulants.
I use the ebbs and flows of news attention to ask why meth has come to be defined as a social problem at different points in recent history. I also ask why there were points in our nation’s history when meth has not been in the national news to the extent that some might expect it would be. I find, for example, that in the early 1980s, methamphetamine use was at its highest level in this country, but the drug rarely made national headlines.
I’ve also looked at how meth use has been defined in media coverage at different points in time and which populations have been associated with it. I write from a social constructionist perspective that is concerned with the social conditions that allow some issues to be defined as problems and gain national attention, whereas other issues—say, homelessness—do not get attention from news media and people in power. The better able claims-makers are to associate a drug with socially powerless people, the more likely a drug scare will proliferate and capture the attention of news consumers and policymakers.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I think they might find it interesting how perceptions of methamphetamine have changed over time. In the late 1930s and early 1940s when amphetamines, including methamphetamine, were introduced to this country, they were hailed as wonder drugs—kind of like how Prozac and other SSRI drugs were hailed as wonder drugs in the early 1990s. The perception that people have of meth today is remarkably different from the perception when it was first introduced. I think historians might be interested in reading about how and why that perception has changed over time.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
One thing that interests me is how contemporary methamphetamine problems are connected to decisions made by individuals and interest groups over the last 100 years, and how policymakers and people trying to influence policymakers have supported and enacted laws that made the drug more harmful, more available, and more abused.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
I am interested to learn the extent to which the methamphetamine problem has evolved over the last 70 years or so in relation to other drug problems, such as those with heroin or cocaine. Related to this, I’m interested in the relationship between black and white market drugs, or to put it differently, between “drugs” and “medicines.” For instance, people started using black market methamphetamine when it became difficult to obtain in a medical setting. I think the same thing is true for heroin today – as OxyContin and other prescription opioids become reformulated or harder to obtain, what you’re seeing is a consequent rise in heroin abuse.
Another one would be looking at local news media because—despite what claims-makers have said recently—methamphetamine remains a regional problem. One shortcoming of my research is that I only examined national news sources, and so the New York Times or the LA Times might have a different agenda than the Des Moines Register or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example. It might be interesting to see how media coverage played out in cities that were more affected by meth than others.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
I want to say someone sarcastically—a former Drug Czar like John Walters. Maybe if he were to read the book out loud, it would allow him and other policymakers to see some of the mistakes that have been made. Michele Leonhart (current head of the DEA) also comes to mind.
Seriously, Ethan Nadelmann might be a good narrator. As a warrior on the war on drugs, he has spoken out a lot about the injustices that occur because of the prohibition status of certain chemicals.