Meth scare and prison


Randall G. Shelden


An article in the Las Vegas Sun recently ("New prisons needed to keep up with meth-laced crime wave," July 12) says: "Methamphetamine is a big reason for the explosion in the inmate population in state prisons, and an estimated $200 million will be needed for new prisons to keep up." Gov. Kenny Guinn "pledged there would be a lot of money recommended for prison expansion in the preliminary budget he plans to hand the next governor." Department of Corrections Director Glen Whorton was asked what is causing an unexpected growth in prison inmates. His reply: "The meth problem is contributing to the criminal conduct."

I am wondering if anyone has taken the time to look into this matter more closely. Where is the evidence that meth has contributed to a rising crime wave in Nevada, aside from what Whorton says?

A cursory check of some recent information turns up the following:

First, according to the Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse less than 1 percent of the entire population of the United States used meth during the year 2001 (latest data available).

Second, this same report noted that "From October 1, 2000, to September 30, 2001, there were 3,932 federal drug arrests for amphetamine/methamphetamine, representing 12 percent of all federal drug arrests." Note that these are federal drug arrests, which would have no impact on state prisons. Another government source says that in 2004 there were only 52 arrests for meth in Nevada. Hardly a "meth crime wave"! There is no information available that I have been able to find as to how many crimes are committed while under the influence of meth (most studies show a stronger correlation with alcohol).

Third, a recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that "The number of new users of stimulants generally increased during the 1990s, but there has been little change since 2000. Incidence of methamphetamine use generally rose between 1992 and 1998. Since then, there have been no statistically significant changes."

Fourth, national data reveal that arrests for drug abuse violations rose by about 22 percent between 1995 and 2004. A very small percentage of these arrests (less than 5 percent) are for meth, according to the FBI. There is little evidence of a great increase in arrests for meth. Marijuana remains the most common drug resulting in an arrest.

Fifth, national data show that from 1995 to 2001 drug offenders accounted for only 15 percent of the increase in state prisoners. Also, the proportion of all jail inmates arrest for drugs barely changed (from 23 percent in 1989 to 24 percent in 2002, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics).

Sixth, a special report by the FBI on juvenile drug offenders reveals that drugs like meth barely constitute 5 percent of all juveniles arrested, with little change in the past 10 years.

Back in the 1980s, the big thing was the "crack" mania, with all sorts of exaggerated hype about "crack babies" and similar stories (all since proven false). Now it is the "meth" craze. There is a pattern to how the media deal with public issues like this one. In virtually all stories on this and related topics, the issue is framed in a similar fashion. Typically, a specific and egregious example is described. A search is done for similar stories and soon the conclusion is reached that there is some sort of "trend" or, worse still, an "epidemic." This is augmented by some juicy comments from representatives of law enforcement and in some cases celebrities and politicians are asked about their opinions (as if they have done some careful research on the issue). Rarely are researchers contacted. Journalists usually uncritically accept what law enforcement and politicians say. In the case of both "crack" and "meth" medical researchers are ignored, at least at first. Virtually all of the "evidence" cited is anecdotal and the focus is almost always on a few, isolated and exceptional cases (otherwise it would not be "news").

Despite the lack of evidence that meth is contributing to the rising prison population in Nevada, the governor wants taxpayers to pay for two new prisons at a cost of $200 million! The only evidence apparently comes from what Whorton says! For this amount of money, I think it is prudent to demand more evidence.