Meth madness also needs preventive script
By James Alan Fox
Monday, March 13, 2006  

All the attention seems to be focused on the tragic death of a local girl raped and strangled in the Big Bad Apple, plus a double-murder suspect's transcontinental travels to England and back. You'd almost think there was nothing else brewing on the crime front - no pressing issues other than who killed Imette St. Guillen or who shot Rachel Entwistle and her baby daughter.

Well, think again, for an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse and meth-related crime and neglect has been storming across America. It's just not the kind of tragedy that becomes fodder for cable TV.

Ten years ago, methamphetamine was largely the drug of choice among biker gangs on the West Coast. However, home-cooked meth, concocted in makeshift kitchen labs, spread through the Midwest's rural hinterlands. And like the jet stream, the meth plague is reaching into our region, and we may be ill-equipped to deal with its devastation.

Meth abuse has grown faster than that of any other drug. Between 2002 and 2004, the number of Americans addicted to meth more than doubled, from 63,000 to 130,000. Meth can take over and destroy lives; chronic users lose interest in everything but the drug.

The toll of secondary victimization is even greater. Many users are mothers and fathers who neglect child care while tending to their addiction. In Oregon, one of the hardest hit states, child foster care placements jumped 11 percent from 2003 to 2004, half from meth-involved households. Iowa found that half the children referred to welfare services involved parental use of meth.

Each year, millions of crimes are linked to meth trade or habit. In some states, police estimate that as many as 80 percent of burglaries and other property offenses are associated with the drug.

In response, Congress has crafted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, appending it to the Patriot Act extension. The measure directs retail stores to lock away cold medicines that contain ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or phenylpropanolamine, the active ingredient in meth, and to require buyer registration and sales limitations for cold sufferers. The bill also provides stiff federal penalties for possession and distribution, and authorizes relatively limited funds for assisting children and families affected by meth.

As usual, the government response is heavy on enforcement and punishment, yet light on prevention and treatment. Attacking supply without addressing demand may do little more than drive up prices and change market conditions, and not for the better.

Oklahoma was one of the first states to remove cold medications from drug store shelves, sharply reducing the number of meth labs. Undeterred, drug-dependent users sought and bought purer and more addictive "crystal meth" imported from superlabs in Mexico. Another case of good intentions, bad result.

At the same time, the government is looking to cut programs that might have a preventive benefit. If the White House has its way, the federal budget will include cuts to Head Start, child care and after-school programs as well as local law enforcement. More meth users, fewer funds for prevention - the "methematics" don't add up.

It is not enough just to lock up the abusers and dealers as well as the cold medications. If this becomes the primary approach, it will be the children and families who are left out in the cold.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at