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.