Meth and Moral Panics, Part Three

Meth and Moral Panics, Part One and Part Two led us to the question of whether and how we ought to arbitrate the real in assessing the ‘disproportionate response’ that moral panics require. In this post, we’ll look at efforts to do just this with respect to methamphetamine in the contemporary United States, and conclude with three suggestions for refashioning the relationship of moral panic studies to actual behavior.

An abundance of published works tie the methamphetamine response to the moral panic concept, most often in studies that don’t really fit the framework (see my earlier post for more on this). Travis Linnemann’s fascinating examination of the gendered reporting of methamphetamine in the Midwest is a good example; in the end, he’s not really all that interested in arbitrating the real. Consider his observation when discussing media portraits of a masculine/feminine dichotomy of work within the methamphetamine trade: “it is not clear whether this division of labor is entirely constructed by the media or if the data depict actual differences in duties. Regardless, the mediated depictions illustrate perceived differences in duties.” (1) Likewise, the sophisticated study of Canadian media by Susan Boyd and Connie I. Carter invokes the drug panic concept, but largely confines itself to the general observation that media coverage avoids and even forecloses “discussion of the broader social, cultural, and economic factors that affect users’ lives, including lack of housing, healthcare, and meaningful employment opportunities.” (2) Jack Shafer, writing Slate‘s Press Box column, has presented some of the best journalistic accounts of error and disproportion, here and here and here—hectoring, at times even begging, his colleagues to take a more careful, evidence-based approach to their reporting of the methamphetamine problem.

The academic study that most explicitly searches for the gap between moral panic and objective reality is Robert R. Weidner’s “Methamphetamine in Three Small Midwestern Cities: Evidence of a Moral Panic,” from the September, 2009 issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Weidner correctly observes that all of this moral panic talk would appear to demand some effort at sorting out the gap between meth panic and meth reality, and that doing so is no easy task (indeed, Weidner cites the work of several scholars who have made the case that the quest to find disproportion “is so laden with ontological and methodological difficulties as to render it virtually useless as an analytical guiding light.”). (4)

Weidner’s study “examined the existence of disproportionality” by comparing media coverage of meth relative to other illegal drugs with the prevalence of treatment admissions for meth relative to other illegal drugs in three cities (Bismarck, North Dakota; Springfield, Illinois; Topeka, Kansas). Media coverage data came from newspaper articles. Prevalence of treatment admissions came from the Treatment Episode Data Set [TEDS], “the only national-level information on the prevalence of substance abuse that is disaggregated for hundreds of MSAs.” Unfortunately, the TEDS data has one absurdly distorting quality—marijuana “treatment” cases overwhelm the data set. Nearly HALF (48%) of all treatment cases during the entire period for all three cities combined were for marijuana, mostly cases in which defendants were “diverted” from the criminal justice system into “treatment.” If coverage of marijuana was not correspondingly high in newspaper accounts (and it wasn’t), one is more inclined to praise editors for sound judgment than to attribute moral panic! By the numbers, the rest of the “real” data is similarly problematic–meth lab seizures and state-level drug self-reports. In the end, Weidner finds his moral panic with criticisms of “drug-scare” rhetoric (the use of terms like “epidemic” “plague” and “scourge”) and claims of addictiveness. A noble effort, but a dispiriting result in the quest to locate disproportion.

So, what do we do now? Discard the moral panic concept?

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