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Meth “Epidemic” Overhyped?

Recently I read the cover story in Newsweek sensationalizing the spread of meth across the country. Publications that should know better have done a terrible job covering the issue, many calling it an “epidemic”.

For more on that see Slate’s good piece on the topic of why drug reporting is, as usual, awful. Jack Shafer is consistently asking the good hard questions about reporting on meth. Or check out blogs about the effects of frantic legislators fighting the so-called drug war.

Unlike most readers I’m well familiar with this “epidemic”, having covered it about 10 years ago in Hemet, Southern California, in a region law enforcement and media referred to when I was there as “the meth capital of the world”.

When I hear the word “meth” my mind instantly flashes back to the most terrible, fascinating, tragic, mind-blowing and mesmerizing – all at once – court testimony I ever saw and the articles I wrote about it, for a newspaper and an on-line publication. It was even more disturbing than covering the sentencing of a serial killer while sandwiched between parents of the victims of his killings.

Sure, I was enjoying writing about the political rise of Sonny Bono. But I was quickly becoming a hardened reporter – maybe too hard, I now think sometimes – after routinely covering fatal car accidents and writing about a woman stabbing to death her kids and then blaming her ex-husband for the crimes (something the media almost fell for).

No, the trial that sticks with me is the one in which a mom cooked meth at her house. The house burned down, killing three children. I believe I was told – and may have mentioned it in this article I wrote at the time – it was the first time murder charges were filed regarding a meth lab.

The woman calmly described the steps she took to make the meth, describing it in such detail that as I watched the reporters, jurors and lawyers take notes I thought whether any of us could then go home and make it herself.

Indeed I later learned her testimony was shown to law enforcement as yet another recipe for making the drug whose popularity is partially sparked with how easy it is to manufacture.

It was before lunch, I remember, that her surviving son took the stand. He did what I’m sure the prosecutors hoped he would not do – he looked at his mom. The mom who killed three siblings. And then he lied.

It was heart-breaking to watch. The prosecutor walked the boy through contradictions between earlier statements and his current testimony. A lunch break was called and burgers were fetched for the boys. I’d lost my appetite.

After lunch the boy told the truth and you could read the confusion in his face as he spoke, torn between a son’s loyalty to his mom and his need to not lie.

His mother – later convicted – took the odd defense strategy of saying she could not be responsible for the fire because of how carefully, how meticulously, she prepared the drugs.

But it was the son’s testimony that stayed with me. It encapsulated crime reporting in a nutshell – a personal encounter with the best and worst of humanity, but more the latter than the former.

Is meth a terrible drug? Of course.

But is it a new epidemic? Nope.

Just ask Jimmy James.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin.He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one.He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle.He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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