Meth in the West


The West continues to be the hot spot for meth in the U.S., leading the rest of the country with 65 percent of meth treatment admissions, according to a new 171-page study by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health puts Nevada first in meth use, with 2.02 percent of the population using the drug, followed by Montana and Wyoming (1.47 percent), and Idaho, Nebraska and Oregon (1.24 percent). The other western states -- Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Washington and Utah -- are all in the top 20.

The RAND survey marks a few changes:

Although meth use was originally highly concentrated among white men, users are now increasingly female and Hispanic. The emergence of meth is also a significant concern for the criminal justice system. The majority of county law-enforcement agencies now report meth as their primary drug problem. Moreover, the share of meth-related treatment admissions referred by the criminal justice system is approximately 50 percent higher than for other substances.

The highly addictive neurotoxin methamphetamine -- which can be smoked, snorted, injected or ingested -- releases enormous bursts of dopamine into the body, causing euphoria and mental alertness. At least at first. Over the long haul, meth use results in everything from insomnia and teeth grinding to liver damage and death. The synthetic stimulant is produced in labs and homes using over-the-counter drugs (ephedrine and pseud0-ephedrine) and commonly available chemicals (hydrochloric acid, methanol, iodine).

RAND puts the cost of meth abuse in the U.S. in 2005 at $23.4 billion, with an upper estimate of more than twice that amount. In computing the costs, researchers tried to include the intangible. For example, the process of producing meth results in 5-6 pounds of toxic by-product for every pound of the drug -- an environmental problem difficult to quantify but estimated at $61.4 million. There were 900 deaths attributed to meth in 2005 -- valued at a rather astonishing $4.5 million per person. The problem of "meth babies" and children, many of whom are taken out of the homes of their meth-using elders...$905 million.

The RAND study also notes that the effects and cost of meth use are disproportionate in relation to the percentage of people using the drug. Only .5 percent of the U.S. population reported using meth in 2005 -- way below rates for marijuana and cocaine and slightly lower than for heroin. High school seniors (presumably the most drug-taking demographic in the country) used meth at a rate of 2.5 percent, as compared with 5.1 percent for cocaine, 9.7 percent for hydrocodone (often via the prescription drug Vicodin) and a whopping 33.6 percent for marijuana.

The study comes up with a per capita cost: $26,872 for each person who used meth in the past year and $74,408 for each dependent user.

And finally, the study concludes with the thought that even the most painstaking survey cannot uncover the true costs to society, or the actual number of meth users:

It is probably not the recreational meth user who imposes the greatest burden on our society, but rather those who become addicted, engage in crime, need treatment or emergency assistance, cannot show up for work, lose their jobs, or die prematurely. These are the individuals who impose the greatest cost on society, yet they are also generally populations that are not adequately captured in household- or school-based surveys.



High Country News Classifieds