The Meth Myth: A Drug that's Always on its Way

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Crystal meth has been touted as the next great U.S. drug epidemic since 1986, and it was speculated as early as 1989 that New York City would soon feel the devastating effects of this new scourge.

Photo by: Radspunk

Crystal meth has been touted as the next great U.S. drug epidemic since 1986, and it was speculated as early as 1989 that New York City would soon feel the devastating effects of this new scourge.

This past October, the New York Post ran a story headlined “Crystal Meth Replacing Cocaine in N.Y.,”premised on the fact that Drug Enforcement Administration agents in the city saw a spike in crystal meth seizures from four kilograms in 2007 to 14 kilos last year.

The story did not mention that in 2008, the DEA in New York seized 1,481 kilograms of cocaine, more than 100 times their claimed haul of meth. Also left out was the fact that the drug agency captured 1,540 kilos of meth nationwide, or more than 100 times what they seized in the five boroughs, America's supposed drug capital. Nor did the DEA or the Post note that, nationwide, the feds confiscated 50,000 kilos of cocaine last year—nabbing 32 kilos of coke for every one kilo of meth—or publicize the fact that crystal meth appears to be on the decline both nationally and in the city.

Even the 14 kilos of meth seized in New York was less than it seemed: The DEA now says that last year's haul ended up weighing no more than nine kilos.

Crystal meth has been touted as the next great U.S. drug epidemic since 1986, and it was speculated as early as 1989 that New York City would soon feel the devastating effects of this new scourge. In 2004, Sen. Charles Schumer announced that crystal meth was “quickly becoming the new crack.”The senior senator told reporters that “it's 1984 all over again,” adding, “Twenty years ago, crack was headed east across the United States like a Mack truck out of control, and it slammed into New York hard because we just didn't see the warning signs.”

Yet, like riding mowers or line dancing, meth—whether called “ice,” “tina,” “crank” or any of its dozen other names—has never really caught on in New York City.

Travis Wendel, a drug researcher conducting a meth study funded by the National Institutes of Health, says methamphetamine has never been widely popular here, perhaps because other drugs have always been more readily available and cheaper in New York than in other parts of the country. The role of a discount-priced drug of choice, he says, “is amply filled by crack and heroin.”

Meth, says Wendel, “is here, but it's a pretty hidden subculture.”The majority of crystal meth in New York is used as a sex drug for gay men, sometimes for anal application before sex (a practice known as a “booty bump”). Wendel believes the other predominant use of crystal meth in the city is as an additive to cocaine; meth makes a coke high last longer. In many instances, he believes, this mixing is being done unbeknownst to the cocaine purchaser.

But there is very little evidence of any substantial crystal meth use in New York City. A 1999 city youth survey found that 2.9 percent of New York's kids had ever tried meth. By 2007, the statistic had fallen to 1.8 percent. By comparison, 12.4 percent had used pot in the past 30 days.

Nationally, the latest available data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show what it terms a “statistically significant decrease” in the rate of methamphetamine use among young adults, from 0.6 percent in 2006 to 0.4 percent in 2007.

Even the cops here aren't concerned. The National Drug Threat Survey reports that the percentage of police departments in the New York–New Jersey region reporting methamphetamine as the “greatest drug threat” is zero.

Yet the myth of “crystal meth as the new crack” persists, despite the fact that crank is about 80 years older than crack. Methamphetamine was invented at the turn of the 20th century, and the crystallized version of it was created in 1919. It was legally prescribed until 1966 in the United States for conditions like narcolepsy. It was first identified as a possible “epidemic” in 1986, and in 1989 was the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing presided over by current Vice President Joe Biden, called “Drugs in the 1990s: New Perils, New Promise.”

Fifteen years after that Senate hearing, in a bid to gain millions of dollars in federal funding for New York City, Schumer depicted crystal meth as a sinister new threat. But the fact is, whatever meth threat there is to the Empire State exists outside the city. From 2006 through 2008, there were 29 methamphetamine-related arrests in all of New York State, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. None of those 29 arrests occurred in the five boroughs.