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March 22nd, 2006 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Meth Madness

How The Oregonian manufactured an epidemic, politicians bought it and you're paying.

     
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Editor's Note: The Oregonian initially cooperated with Willamette Week's investigation of the daily paper's reporting on meth. Reporter Steve Suo made himself available for interviews and shared information on several occasions. Editor Tom Maurer provided written answers to several early questions. Last week, when WW sought additional responses from editors and another reporter, Joseph Rose, Maurer said the paper had decided to stop cooperating.

Over the past year and a half, The Oregonian has dedicated itself to exposing the rise of methamphetamine addiction. Beginning with its five-part series "Unnecessary Epidemic" in October 2004 and continuing through this month, reporters have hunted down the causes of the outbreak, revealing a web of international suppliers and offering solutions that previously languished because of a lack of political will.

Devoting at least 261 stories to the subject in the past year and a half, The Oregonian's ongoing investigation is an example of what can happen when a newspaper decides to lead a campaign against a social ill. In part because of the daily's coverage, Congress has passed tough anti-meth laws and Oregon has become the home base for a rising national uproar over the powerful stimulant.

But there is a darker side to the newspaper's achievement.

In its effort to convince the world of the threats posed by meth, The Oregonian has sacrificed accuracy. According to an analysis of the paper's reporting, a review of drug-use data and conversations with addiction experts, The Oregonian has relied on bad statistics and a rhetoric of crisis, ultimately misleading its readers into believing they face a far greater scourge than the facts support.

Few local media watchers are willing to criticize The Oregonian's coverage of the meth problem. But skepticism about the growing frenzy has begun to appear in the pages of major papers across the country, from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, where columnist John Tierney recently wrote that politicians have become so meth-obsessed, "they've lost sight of their duties."

Miami Herald media critic Glenn Garvin, who is critical of national drug reporting, says he is disappointed in The Oregonian's reliance on shaky numbers.

"This idea that we are in a meth hell, it is just not right," he says. "It does not comport to the numbers. It's nonsensical."

The implications of The Oregonian's meth obsession are twofold.

Through its focus on meth as the cause of so much pain and loss, the paper has skewed the truth at a time when journalism's integrity faces increased scrutiny. In addition, the constant coverage, with a wide reach into Salem and even into Washington, D.C., has rearranged governmental spending priorities, perhaps without justification, amid continued budgetary belt-tightening that has already forced cuts in education and health care.

The Oregonian defends its reporting, which has earned national and local awards for investigative journalism. Others, especially addiction-treatment experts, worry that the coverage has focused too narrowly on the evils of one drug.

Dr. Jim Thayer, medical director of the Portland addiction-treatment center Hooper Detox, says The Oregonian's reporting has helped create this "feeling of hysteria. The media latched onto this thing that's been going on for years. I just worry that they'll take resources away that have been working for years and just put them into meth."

Any reader of The Oregonian over the past 18 months would have to conclude that we stand at the epicenter of an incomparably profound and growing epidemic, a human tragedy perpetrated by a single drug that acts on the central nervous system to produce an hours-long high of unmatched euphoria, energy and well-being. Coming down off a long high can leave users depressed and physically exhausted.

The sentiment of The Oregonian's coverage was established in the title of its 2004 series, "Unnecessary Epidemic," and buttressed by subsequent stories in language that beat the drum of crisis.

The newspaper's editorials sounded the loudest alarm.

The editorials refer to "communities ravaged by an epidemic of meth-fueled crime and social breakdown" (Nov. 20, 2005) and describe the stimulant as a "plague" ravaging Portland neighborhoods and reaching almost every state in the country (Sept. 30, 2005).

Such characterizations by the paper's editorial board draw on conclusions reached in the daily's news stories. The first paragraph of the "Unnecessary Epidemic" series' first story said meth "was devastating the West." Stories both local and national in scope refer repeatedly to an "epidemic." The word has appeared in 91 Oregonian stories on meth since October 2004.

On Feb. 20 of this year, columnist S. Renee Mitchell wrote, without offering data to back up her claim: "The number of meth addicts—and the crimes they commit to support their habits—is exploding."

The Oregonian's reporting even prompted the investigative television program Frontline to visit Portland in the summer of 2005 to shoot a documentary for public broadcasting. The Meth Epidemic was produced in cooperation with The Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting. Oregonian reporter Steve Suo, who has done much of the paper's meth reporting, says he collaborated on the project and reviewed the script line by line.

The resulting hourlong broadcast paints Portland as a war zone of marauding meth-heads. Against the crackling backdrop of a police scanner, an officer arrests a man who says his mother introduced him to meth. The voiceover intones, "This is the story of a disease that is sweeping across America. It begins here, in Portland, Oregon, where an epidemic is raging, an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse."

One haggard-looking woman sitting inside a Portland trailer says, "I think meth has destroyed this community. I think, in all reality, I think they need to take a bomb and blow it all up. It's that bad."

Maybe not.

In fact, meth use during the past four years has either declined or stayed flat, according to two major national drug-use studies. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that meth use did not increase at all from 2002 (two years before The Oregonian started its carpet-bombing coverage) through 2004, the last year for which there is data. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study, which examines drug use among youth, actually shows a decline in meth use among high-school students from 1999 to 2005.

In its defense, The Oregonian insists its coverage has hinged on a long-term rise in meth abuse, not the trends of the past several years. But a review of The Oregonian's coverage found no reference to the evidence that meth use had begun to plateau or even decline before its ongoing coverage began in 2004.

Asked if an average reader of The Oregonian would be likely to conclude that meth use was continuing to rise, Suo said, "I don't know. That's a good question."

A chief way The Oregonian makes the case for rising meth abuse is by pointing to drug-treatment data compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which conducts the national drug-use survey. The administration has published several studies showing a steady increase in the number of people receiving treatment for meth from 1993 through 2003.

Oregonian crime-team editor Tom Maurer, who oversees a good deal of the paper's meth coverage, cited the most recent report as an indicator of increased meth use.

Problem is, a rising number of people receiving treatment is far from proof that the number of addicts is also rising.

In fact, a footnote in the very study cited by The Oregonian cautions that the rise in treatment comes primarily from an increase in the number of arrestees ordered by drug courts to enroll in addiction programs.

The Oregonian has not mentioned this fact. Nor has it explored other factors that make it hard to draw conclusions from treatment data, like the rising and falling availability of state-funded services.

Suo says he and his editors reviewed the issues with treatment data and decided they didn't change the paper's conclusions.

"We explored those potential problems and addressed them to our own satisfaction," Suo says.

Locally, the size of the meth epidemic is even less clear. There is no good count of the total number of Oregon meth users, nor any clear measure of whether that number is growing. While local treatment numbers also show an increase, that barometer suffers from the same pitfalls afflicting national treatment data, including a rising number of people coerced into treatment by drug courts.

The Oregonian has also blurred the distinctions among recreational users, regular users and addicts, suggesting a far higher level of dependence than actually exists.

On March 3 of this year, The Oregonian described meth as "a potent stimulant now consumed by 1.4 million Americans from Oregon to the Carolinas."

A reader could draw several conclusions from this sentence: that 1.4 million people use meth every day, use it regularly or have tried it once.

In fact, the number, which comes from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, refers to those people who report using meth at least once in the past year. They may have used it one time or 100.

According to the same study, fewer than 600,000 people report using meth within the past month—a closer approximation of addiction, according to drug-abuse experts.

Multnomah County addiction-program director Ray Hudson says it would be inaccurate to say all of the 1.4 million people who reported using meth in the past year are "users" or "addicts."

"It's a very coarse yardstick," he says, adding that most meth addicts would never go off the drug for an entire month.

As evidence of the social costs of the epidemic, The Oregonian has often reported that meth "fuels" 85 percent of the state's property crimes. The statistic—which has fluctuated between 80 and 90 percent—has appeared in at least 14 stories over the past four years, each time without any skepticism and four times without any attribution.

It's an amazing detail. And it's probably false.

When asked where the number came from, The Oregonian credited Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who used it in an op-ed piece published Oct. 5, 2004. Contacted by WW, the governor's office couldn't remember where the stat originated but said it was confirmed by Craig Durbin, the former state police commander for drug enforcement.

Durbin says the figure had been in wide circulation during the summer of 2004 and he decided to verify its accuracy on his own. "So I made an informal poll," he says. Durbin says he called several of Oregon's three dozen district attorneys (he cannot recall which ones or how many), and all agreed that meth caused about 85 percent of property crimes.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk—who oversees the state's largest, most urban court system—says he can't remember Durbin calling to conduct a poll on meth and property crime. Nor could Schrunk's two deputy district attorneys assigned to prosecute drug cases and felony property crimes. All three men say they are well aware of a strong correlation between property crime and meth, but they are unaware of any statistical analysis to prove that connection.

Despite The Oregonian's reliance on this figure, there is no good evidence that meth causes 85 percent of the property crimes in Oregon.

Portland State University criminology professor Kris Henning says the number just doesn't make sense. Department chair Annette Jolin says the unsupportable statistic has become "something of a joke"among statistical researchers in the department.

For one thing, Oregon property crimes are much lower than they were 10 or even 20 years ago, the time period of the supposed meth "epidemic."

"If meth causes property offenses, and meth use has gone up," Henning says, "then property offenses should have gone up. And they haven't. It's either that, or all the people who commit property crimes have disappeared and been replaced by a small number of meth users."

Henning also wonders how a prosecutor could know for a fact that meth had been the underlying motivation for a crime. He adds, "A lot of the people committing the property crimes would probably be doing them regardless of whether they were addicted to methamphetamines."

Still, Durbin believes the 85 percent figure is accurate. He says his personal experience working the drug detail reinforces his belief in the accuracy of the statistic.

"I worked on the street for four and a half years," he says. "The unique thing about methamphetamine is that you can't work [because of the nature of the high]. You either produce it yourself, deal it, or you steal to support your habit."

Unlike marijuana or ecstasy, Durbin says, meth can hook users the first time. "Most often within a couple times of use, you're addicted," he says. "Some people, it's the first time they use."

Hudson, the addiction-program manager for Multnomah County, cautions against such blanket statements. People can use meth and not get addicted, he says, adding, a little nervously, "I'm not going to go around saying you can do these drugs and not get addicted. That would be crazy."

Hudson recalls the 1937 movie Reefer Madness, which linked smoking marijuana with an instantaneous plunge into crime and debauchery. He says the movie is now held up as a way not to talk about drugs.

"Trying to scare people with things that really aren't true," he says, "is really self-defeating."

Tom Bivins, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, says it's irresponsible for a newspaper to publish statistics without fully understanding how researchers obtained them. Bivins commented on The Oregonian's use of statistics after WW presented him with specific examples.

"If there's no study, it baffles how you can report a statistic like that," Bivins says, adding that in order to come up with the 85 percent statistic, researchers would need to keep track of the motivations of every crime, a near-impossibility. "Other than that, it's basically hearsay."

Oregonian crime-team editor Maurer says Portland and state police have repeatedly told his reporters that the number is accurate. Maurer admits they have not always attributed the number to police and, in an emailed response to WW's questions, wrote, "We should have."

Reporter Suo admits the 85 percent figure cannot be backed up with data. "I don't think it's a perfect figure," he says. "It's a piece of anecdotal evidence."

The children of the meth epidemic have become the emotional center of The Oregonian's coverage. On Aug. 28, 2005, The Oregonian's Sunday edition ran a front-page story with the headline, "Oregon's meth epidemic creates thousands of 'orphans.'"

Reporter Joseph Rose cited a new study by the state Department of Human Services that linked half of the state's foster-care cases to meth. He wrote, "Last year, roughly 2,750 children—more than half of all foster cases—were taken from parents using or making the potent drug, the study found" (WW's emphasis added).

The only hitch: There was no study. "We don't have a formal report," DHS spokeswoman Patricia Feeny says, adding, "When I use the word 'study.' I think there's going to be a product, a report."

Not only is there no document, DHS doesn't even track whether children are taken from their homes because of meth.

Instead, DHS coordinator Jay Wurscher compared a list of 2004 foster-care cases—containing the names of parents and other adults—with a database of people who had received treatment for meth. He came up with a roughly 50 percent match.

Wurscher's comparison did not show whether meth use specifically caused the children to be taken from their homes. The analysis did, however, reveal a possible correlation between the drug and child abuse.

But The Oregonian did not describe the findings as a correlation or an association. The paper wrote that "meth creates thousands of orphans," and later that meth "fuels" 50 percent of the state's foster-care cases.

The Oregonian's reports suggested to many readers, Wurscher concedes, that if meth were eliminated, 50 percent of the state's foster-care cases would evaporate as well. After the media began linking meth with foster care, Wurscher says, DHS employees have had to explain that getting rid of meth would not solve the problem of bad parenting.

The story ran with a picture of a child being removed from her home, with a caption that said police were investigating her parents for meth abuse. More than a week later, The Oregonian's public editor wrote a column explaining that the child's parents were not associated with the drug and that the photo had been misleading.

Surprisingly, nearly a year before crediting DHS with the statistic, reporter Rose stated it as fact. In November 2004, he wrote, "Methamphetamine is the leading reason Oregon children are removed from their homes."

Rose did not return calls for comment.

Like the 85 percent statistic, the large percentage of meth-related foster care cases would suggest a recent surge in the number of children being intercepted by social workers—which has not happened, according to state foster-care data.

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian Reason magazine, says he understands the temptation to print big statistics. Sullum has been a frequent critic of meth hyperbole and the war on drugs in general.

"It makes a better story," he says. "It's certainly striking. That makes it seem like a really big problem and something to write about and something to read about. There's always a chemical menace of the day that people focus all their fears on. At another time it was crack, at another it was marijuana. The hazards are always exaggerated, and the response is not necessarily rational."

The response is often to focus on one drug as the main cause of spiraling social ills rather than one of many causes.

University of California-Santa Cruz sociologist Craig Reinarman, who has studied the war on drugs for 30 years, says media reports fuel a governmental reaction that emphasizes imprisonment and law enforcement over social services and health care.

"These stories are pointed to as evidence of the epidemic and the horrible things that are caused by the epidemic," Reinarman says. "And tax dollars are diverted away from the underlying sources of people's troubles."

The Oregonian's reporting has indeed inspired increased spending on meth-focused law enforcement.

In August 2005, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill requiring cold medications containing a raw ingredient for meth—psuedoephedrine—to be sold behind the counter. Just this month, the U.S. Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which will regulate the sale and importation of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, another precursor ingredient, and devote more than $100 million to fight the drug, mostly with beefed-up law enforcement.

When the law passed, Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder told an Oregonian reporter, "You became the source of information for members in Washington. If they were following meth, they were following to see what you were writing."

A very visible consequence of The Oregonian's coverage has taken place on the state's political battlefield, where meth has squeezed out issues that are equally or more important. Political hopefuls in Oregon regularly deliver get-tough-on-meth pledges worthy of the war on terror. Gov. Ted Kulongoski has incorporated meth into his maneuvering for the upcoming May primary. Earlier this month, his staff summoned television news cameras to a children's center in Oregon City, where the governor had heart-to-hearts with "meth moms" and called for more money for drug courts and treatment programs.

A Republican contender for governor, Ron Saxton, has joined the rush to battle. In a campaign ad on his website, Saxton calls meth a plague and promises to give "law enforcement the tools to fight this war."

And in perhaps the most far-flung example of shifting priorities, a partnership lobbying to build a new private casino in east Multnomah County (at the old greyhound track) has pledged to give 2 percent of all revenues to the fight against one drug: meth.

THE DRUGS OF CHOICE

THE NUMBER OF AMERICANS WHO REPORT USING METH IN THE PAST MONTH tops heroin, but is less than cocaine, hallucinogenics, and non-medical use of prescription painkillers.

SOURCES: NATIONAL SURVEY ON DRUG USE AND HEALTH, 2002-2004: NATIONAL HOUSEHOLD SURVEY ON DRUG ABUSE, 1999-2001


In 2003, 35 percent of the people arrested for property crimes in Multnomah County tested positive for methamphetamine. About 37 percent of those charged with violent crimes tested positive for the rage-inducing super drug marijuana.

Since police make an arrest in only about 15 percent of property crimes, criminologists say it's difficult to draw conclusions about perpetrators or their motivations based on arrest alone.

In April 2005, The Oregonian published a story on the so-called "meth tax," a calculation by economists that said every Multnomah County household paid an extra $363 for losses including $88.4 million in stolen property and $6.1 million to care for the meth orphans in foster care. The stats are misleading, however, because they rely on the O's faulty statistics linking the drug with crime and child abuse.

Steve Suo's reporting did a good job revealing the ties between overseas pharmaceutical factories and the mega-labs in California and Mexico that convert over-the-counter cold medication into the potent street drug. Suo makes the case for stemming rates of addiction by imposing restrictions on factories that produce meth's precursor ingredients.

Drug-abuse experts stress that property crimes have long been associated with drug use. While crooks' drug of choice may change from time to time, they say, the central problem is still that desperate people do desperate things.

There is little evidence that the total number of illicit drug users is on the rise.

 
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