Methamphetamine: What are the real costs to society?

Usually when we hear the word “cost” we think in terms of money. Although there are significant monetary costs associated with methamphetamine abuse, there are also human costs to consider. The physical effects (brain damage, kidney and lung disorders, liver damage, and even death) as well as psychological damage (severe depression and at times paranoid psychosis) to meth users were discussed last week and are obvious personal costs. But what about the lost potential of those persons with their families, at school or work? Additionally, the violent behavior, frequently associated with methamphetamine abuse hurts others. Family and close friends are often targets of the meth-user’s violence. Police in Contra Costa County, California, report that nearly 90 % of the domestic violence calls they investigate are methamphetamine related. Law enforcement officers and jail personnel may also be subjected to the meth abuser’s physical aggression. Then, of course, there is the violence and killing among the methamphetamine distributors, directed toward others for the purpose of intimidation, retaliation, or discipline.

And what about communication in the family? Who’s raising the meth abuser’s children? Many have neglected their dependents’s welfare and need for guidance, opting instead for a relationship with methamphetamine. In adolescence, communication with family members is difficult enough. This is a time when the adolescent is caught between desire for independence and adult privilege, but has not fully developed the necessary capacity to effectively assume adult responsibilities and leave childhood behind. Meth use further complicates family communication and stifles social development. Symptoms such as irritability, false sense of power and confidence, aggression, confusion, anxiety, and depression make it even more difficult for teens to effectively accomplish the developmental tasks of the adolescent phase of life. Meth users often become promiscuous and are at increased risk for contracting and spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Unwanted pregnancies may also result, and the physical and emotional damage can be devastating.

Diseases such as HIV and hepatitis-C (which incidentally progresses to chronic hepatitis in more than 50% of those infected) are also readily transmitted by intravenous (I.V.) drug use, and statistics show that 29 % of all methamphetamine users in the state of Wyoming are using injection as their preferred primary route of administration for this drug. Automobile accidents are another hazard to which meth use contributes and innocent people may be affected. Increased crime is also associated with meth abuse.

Because profit from manufacture and sale of methamphetamine is high and the drug is relatively easy to synthesize, home labs are set up readily in local communities. This is problematic because the volatile and toxic nature of some of the chemicals needed to make meth pose a high risk of explosion and fire. Additionally, although the used chemicals constitute hazardous wastes, they are typically disposed of by dumping on the ground nearby the “lab” where inadvertent contact by children or pets may cause harm.

There are also monetary costs to society associated with methamphetamine abuse. Although these costs are difficult to estimate, two landmark studies are cited when comparing the expense of interdiction, enforcement, and prosecution to effective treatment. The RAND Corporation, at the behest of the U.S. Army and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, conducted a study and determined that every dollar spent on treatment resulted in a $7.46 reduction in lost productivity and crime-related spending. Another California study frequently cited in the substance-abuse literature found that taxpayers saved $7.00 for every dollar spent on treatment. These estimates do not include the costs of providing medical care. Furthermore, the cost of incarceration ranges from $16,000 to $37,00 across the U.S. and averages $18,330 based on 1996 figures. The cost to build a prison cell is between $80,000 to $90,000. Contrastingly, residential substance abuse treatment programs cost an average of $14,600 per year and outpatient programs cost about $2,300 on average, nationwide.

Finally, there are other costs we must consider and difficult questions to ask. How do you put a price on the human suffering such as a mother leaving her husband and children, a father threatening and beating terrified family members, or disruption of the child or adolescent’s education and normal social and physical development due to meth use? What is the cost of premature senility associated with prolonged methamphetamine abuse? And, how much would we determine an arresting officer’s or jailer’s exposure to HIV or hepatitis-C while in contact with a violent meth-user was worth?