Meth Mania: A History of Methamphetamine

Meth Mania: A History of Methamphetamine

Author: Nicholas L. Parsons
Publisher: Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013. 242p.
Reviewer: Rashi K. Shukla | March 2015

Meth Mania: A History of Methamphetamine presents an in-depth historical review of the social, cultural, and political factors that contributed to the evolution and development of the methamphetamine problem in the U.S. Based on secondary sources of information, this book ties together historical information about drug use and policy responses with sociological concepts used to explain and understand evolving views and reactions. Though focused primarily on the history of methamphetamine, readers are provided with important background information about other drugs and broader drug-related policies to place the story of amphetamines and methamphetamine into context. The detailed historical accounts of three main eras of amphetamine drug scares and how they progressed over time is a key strength of the book. It is comprised of the following eight chapters.

In chapter 1, readers are introduced to concepts that serve as the primary theoretical foundation for the analysis being presented, including the supply-versus-demand approach to drugs and social constructionism. Background information about the social construction of reality, moral panics and drug scares, and the role of claims makers as related to cultural and societal views and responses to drug problems is presented.

Chapter 2 describes early drug use and drug problems in the U.S. with a focus on the early acceptance of the positive therapeutic benefits of drugs as responses to numerous ailments. The interplay between societal attitudes, governmental regulators, and other interest groups is described, and the historical emergence of initial legislative responses to drugs is documented. Though the information presented is not new, contextual details on some of the controversies behind and processes by which the earliest pieces of drug legislation (i.e., the Harrison Act) were enacted are presented within the context of their significance for later responses to amphetamines.

Chapter 3 then introduces readers to a critical distinction for understanding synthetic drugs — the difference between isolating and synthesizing drugs. A historical account of the invention of amphetamines and methamphetamine are described. Readers are told of the role of pharmaceutical companies that manufactured and marketed early forms of the drug and how the drug fit into American culture in the years 1932 to 1960. Shifting perceptions and responses that followed negative media coverage of Benzedrine and growing opposition among medical professionals is described. Relevant historical events including the Great Depression, the anti-marijuana campaign, and U.S. involvement in World War II are linked to macro-level explanations of demand and supply. Stakeholders and factors that influenced shifts in responses to what was becoming viewed as a social problem during the 1950s and 1960s are also discussed.

The next chapters (i.e., 4, 5, and 6) provide in-depth information on the three eras of amphetamine drug scares that have occurred in the U.S. The first scare, referred to as speed freaks, is referenced in chapter 4. Historical evidence is presented to illustrate the significance of the emerging delineation between amphetamines and methamphetamine in the public discourse about drugs. Key factors that influenced shifting perceptions of methamphetamine as a drug in need of control included intravenous use by Korean War Veterans, the negative portrayal of Methedrine by the mass media, and the emergence of ‘speed freaks.’ The chapter ends with a brief review of how responding to drug problems became a key political issue, and provides background information on how the main federal legislation still in use to classify drugs today was actually formed and enacted in 1970.

Chapter 5 describes the second scare, ice. This chapter begins with data on the prevalence of methamphetamine use as measured by national drug surveillance systems. The discussion then moves back to describing the evolution of the illicit black market for methamphetamine, the emergence of clandestine manufacturing in the U.S., and various harms related to manufacturing. The role of increasingly negative media accounts that followed a period of non-coverage and the timing of this coverage as related to the former crack scare is discussed. The role of claims makers in both constructing and deconstructing hysteria about ice is also described.

Chapter 6 outlines the third scare, crystal meth. Hysteria about the ‘crystal meth epidemic’ was promoted in part due to the absence of competitive claims regarding the evils of other drugs that had existed within the previous two drug scare eras. In what was presented as a new drug epidemic, alarmist media reports and social constructions of tweakers based on exaggerated and stereotypical images served to inform the public and responders, resulting in increased stigmatization of meth users and perpetuation of the mythology of the dope fiend. Examples of media reports that helped frame the public discourse about methamphetamine and that further contribute to the demonization of users are described. The chapter ends with an overview of responses to the problem.

Chapter 7 details the broader context and consequences of the contemporary methamphetamine problem. The chapter begins with an examination of epidemiological trends of methamphetamine and describes the incongruence between available data and ongoing media depictions. Three popular social problems that emerged as themes in media coverage about crystal meth include gay rights, illegal immigration, and environmental devastation. Heightened concerns about this new drug scare were fueled in part by criminal justice system agencies with a vested interest in maintaining ongoing legislative and financial support for responses. Chapter 7 concludes with a discussion that revisits the cat and mouse analogy as related to responses to methamphetamine, and subsequent intended and unintended consequences, or successes and failures, including reductions in local manufacturing, the evolution of trafficking, and the emergence of smurfing.

Chapter 8 begins with an ongoing example of the cycle of drug scares and policy responses today through the example of violence attributable to ‘bath salts.’ The situation began with a high profile horrific crime that occurred in May 2012. The incident was touted by claims makers and media reports to be related to ‘bath salts,’ another synthetic stimulant drug belonging to a class of drugs known as synthetic cathinones. Negative media reports and related claims by claims makers followed. Ongoing policy responses to this seemingly newer, novelty drug scare are described to serve as an example of history repeating itself. The chapter ends with key lessons learned from the television series Breaking Bad, and suggestions for new directions in the future including demand and harm reduction. The book ends with an analogy between the need for addicts to break the cycle of addiction, and the broader societal need to break the ongoing pattern of reacting to sensationalized drug problems with “knee-jerk, lock-‘em-up reactions” (p. 199).

This book is a must read for anyone seeking to understand how historical, political, societal, and contextual factors that involve stakeholders and claims makers with diverse interests shape and influence perceptions and responses to problems such as methamphetamine. While some of the information presented is not new, the discussions are enhanced from previous historical accounts. Additional and more recent sources of information are included in the detailed accounts, and sociological concepts and themes are integrated into the discussion throughout. Though the book is easy to read and includes an extensive amount of detail, the narrative would have been strengthened with minor editorial revisions in how the story is told (e.g., remove shifts in author voice within chapters and repetition between chapters). Meth Mania: A History of Methamphetamine makes an important contribution towards understanding how societal acceptance of and responses to problems such as amphetamine/methamphetamine evolve and shift over time, and the role played by diverse claims makers and others with vested interests in maintaining specific types of socially constructed portrayals.

Rashi K. Shukla, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Central Oklahoma

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