In the early 70’s, I drove a taxicab in order to eke out a living. The cab company employed a bevy of young men and women, mostly former students at the University of Texas. Many of these cabbies were ex-hippies who had progressed from marijuana and alcohol to shooting up speed—methamphetamine. I roomed with one of them, and he convinced me to try the drug.
Within two seconds of the syringe plunger being pushed down, I felt an indescribable euphoria. Reality literally buzzed with ecstasy, and no convincing was necessary for me to continue using the drug. Fortunately, I stopped after a relatively short time. Someone had told me that each “hit” of speed killed ten thousand brain cells. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I didn’t want to risk my brain for a momentary pleasure, however intense.
Certainly, long-term use of meth does damage the brain, which may actually shrink in volume as neurons are destroyed. Verbal ability, concentration, memory, and physical coordination are affected, and there’s some evidence that users are prone to Parkinson’s Disease. The circulatory system and major organs are harmed. And the meth addict’s teeth fall out because of a persistent dryness of mouth. At the Walmart where I presently work, I see many such people every day.
All this is serious enough, but sudden meth deaths from stroke or heart attack do occur. These days methamphetamine is frequently laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Thus, in recent years methamphetamine-related deaths have skyrocketed. Drug dealers don’t really care if their customers die from a contaminated product. There’s always someone else to replace them.
According to the Pew Research Center, between 2015 and 2019 arrests for meth possession increased 59%, methamphetamine substance abuse disorder rose by 37%, and overdose deaths involving meth more than doubled. Some states are hit harder by the epidemic than others. In Texas, for example, the methamphetamine death rate increased by 115% while New York saw a 225% increase, and New Jersey registered an eye-popping 733% surge.
Law enforcement activities have been ineffective in stopping the spread of the drug. Arresting and jailing people doesn’t deter others from using methamphetamine, which—as I well know—lifts the user from boredom and depression to the heights of ecstatic pleasure. Who worries about being caught with meth when it promises heaven on earth, at least temporarily?
The only way to curb methamphetamine substance abuse is through a public health approach to the problem. But what is the public health approach? Well, the Biden-Harris public health plan has eight prongs, among which are prevention programs in schools and training for law enforcement personnel. The schools chosen for programs would be in areas of high poverty, low education, low employment, and high meth use. The training for police officers would teach them how to assist people experiencing a methamphetamine-induced health crisis. Other prongs have to do with strengthening and coordinating both national and international law enforcement efforts. However, the most interesting approaches are in the areas of treatment and harm reduction.
Harm reduction largely consists of providing meth users with fentanyl test strips, new syringes, and naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid intoxication. Supervised safe injection sites, like those recently established in New York City, can also prevent overdoses. The treatment aspect involves making it easier for meth users to access the drug abuse programs offered by rehabilitation centers. The Biden-Harris plan also emphasizes “contingency management” as a preferred intervention.
Contingency management is, essentially, paying meth users to stay off the drug. If urine tests show that someone has not used methamphetamine for a certain period prior to testing, that person is given a monetary reward. To be effective, the reward must be in the $400—$500 range. That amount of money can be criticized as too expensive, but the countervailing argument is simply this: contingency management works! (Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which helps patients identify the triggers of their drug use, is also beneficial.)
So, do Friends have a particular viewpoint applicable to the meth epidemic? Yes, we most certainly do! Consider this query from New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice: “Have we confronted our own decisions about our use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and do we encourage others to do likewise? Have we considered the cost in human suffering that might result from such use?”
Of course, there may not be universal agreement among Friends as to the “how” of solving the methamphetamine drug problem, but I feel reasonably certain that almost all Quakers would advocate for a public health approach as opposed to a “nail and jail” non-solution.
~ Richard Russell
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