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Friday, January 28, 2011

"The Year of Meth"

Moral panics about drugs are very common in the news.

We've had them about marijuana, crack cocaine, and now meth.

Even in the local news.

The High Country Press currently features a front-page story on meth, asking if 2011 is "The Year of Meth?"

Well, of course, no one can say for sure what 2011 holds, since it just started.

But the data in their own story show that even 2010 could not rationally be called "The Year of Meth."

For example, in this chart, to the right, we see that meth lab busts increased in 2010, but they still remain far below the levels of 2003 and 2004.

Any student of research methods or statistics could tell you that, overall, meth lab busts are down.

Yet, the High Country Press claims in the article that meth labs are again "rising."

Their source of data? Law enforcement, of course. Take, for example, this claim: "Law enforcement officials say that methamphetamine manufacture, after a period of decline in 2006 and 2007, is once again on the rise locally and throughout North Carolina."

In fact, the charts in the story depict the activities of law enforcement, and thus reflect the fact that seizures of meth labs have increased. For example, the chart to the right shows that meth lab seizures increased from 2007 through 2010. They do not conclusively show that actual meth labs increased during this time period.

Yet, even if there really is more meth being produced, the 2010 level if still below that of 2004 and 2005. So why all the hype?

Even the statewide data depicted in the story show a total of only 235 labs seized in the entire state in 2010. With more than 3 million households in the state, 235 labs amounts to approximately 0.008% of all households. In other words, this is hardly a problem serious enough to warrant such concern.

Nevertheless, the High Country Press depicts a map showing the distribution of meth labs in the state. See all that white? Those are counties with ZERO lab busts.

And who led the state?

My county--Watauga County--with a grand total of 20 busts! That's 20 busts in a county with tens of thousands of residences. 

Johnson County, Tennessee--to our Northwest--reportedly had "around 20 meth labs" discovered both in 2009 and in 2010. 

Johnson County Sheriff Mike Reece is quoted in the story saying: “It’s on the rise again. We’re getting word every day that they’re everywhere.”
Read that again.

Every day?


Clearly this is a gross exaggeration as, again, tens of thousands of households in the county do not house meth labs. How can they be everywhere when they are virtually nowhere?

Yet, the reporter for the newspaper does not attempt to refute the statement, much less temper it with data or an alternative viewpoint from people who actually study these problems for a living.

Does this matter?


Evidence reviewed in the book shows that when the media focus on an issue, it becomes seen as a social problem. In other words, media coverage about meth creates concern about meth, creating the perception that it is a serious threat to people.

Want some anecdotal evidence? Take this comment from a person who read the story online:

"Is there a service that certifies real estate as 'meth free'? I am thinking about relocating to Boone area and am concerned esp. about renting a contaminated property."
See? A person actually thinks he/she has a realistic chance of renting a contaminated apartment in the county because of this story!
And here is another:
"Thank you for letting us know about the dangers of trash pick up. We do that regularly and we appreciate the warning. And, thanks to Sheriff Hagaman and all of the deputies for your service. Articles like this remind us of how dangerous your job is and how you are at risk daily to keep our community safe."
Now people will even be worried about picking up trash?

Wow, just wow.

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