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Does meth really make crack cocaine 'look like child's play'?

In 2005, Newsweek called the "epidemic" of methamphetamine use "America's new drug crisis." A year earlier, a New York State Police captain described meth to the New York Times as making "crack look like child's play."

A new report by the Open Society Foundations' Global Drug Policy Program, however, exposes such remarks as mere hyperbole. In fact, after considering actual statistics and case studies, the researchers determined that meth simply doesn't live up to the hype.

Is that a problem? After all, meth can cause harm. Furthermore, possession of meth can result in state or federal criminal charges, and the penalties can be harsh -- possession of only five grams calls for a federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years. If exaggerated claims convince people to avoid meth, isn't that a good thing?

On the contrary, the Open Society writers maintain, over-hyped claims can cause real harm, as we know from the crack cocaine scare in the 1980s. The impact of exaggerating the dangers of crack introduced perversions into our criminal justice system -- such as sentences for federal crack offenses being as much as 100 times as long as those for equivalent powder-cocaine offenses -- that are still playing out decades later.

If meth isn’t more dangerous than other drugs, as the data shows, the penalties for meth offenses are needlessly harsh. Moreover, exaggerating its dangers could convince people to doubt even legitimate drug warnings.

The reality, the authors found, is that “many of the immediate and long-term harmful effects caused by methamphetamine use have been greatly exaggerated.” The evidence shows that meth is no more dangerous than legal amphetamines prescribed to treat ADHD in children. Even long-term use caused effects no worse than those of legal stimulants.

As for addiction, a 2009 analysis of National Survey on Drug Use and Health data found that only 5 percent of meth users became dependent within two years. The Open Society authors estimate that fewer than 15 percent become addicted over a lifetime.

Perhaps most important, the researchers found that “there is no empirical evidence that suggests that even long-term users of methamphetamine pose a threat to those around them.”

Fairly or not, meth use remains highly stigmatized in our society. If you’re accused of meth possession or any meth-related offense, you should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

Source: Forbes, "Hyperbole Hurts: The Surprising Truth About Methamphetamine," Jacob Sullum, Feb. 20, 2014

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