Good news about drug use cloaked as bad news

In the past week, I read two disturbing articles in the Maine press about drug use. But in both cases, it was the articles themselves that raised red flags, not the facts they contained. To the contrary, both stories reported data that should be good news to those concerned about illegal drug use.

The July 25 Portland Press Herald featured a front-page story headlined, “Maine seeing surge of scary drug called Spice.” The article highlighted the experience of a 13-year-old who took a big toke of the fake dope — plant matter enhanced with chemical compounds that produce marijuana-like effects — vomited a few times, hallucinated and was hospitalized for four days with an accelerated heart rate.

Spice is the latest in a long list of buzz-producing, legal substances young people experiment with before they grow out of that phase or find a reliable pot connection. First it was gas-huffing, then glue-sniffing, followed by Wite-Out abuse. An inhalant called Rush made the rounds when I was in high school, but good luck finding a bottle today. In college, nitrous oxide was big, but its popularity seems to have peaked with that of The Spin Doctors.

These fads come and go because young people soon discover that the high such substances produce is shorter than the hangover and weaker than the side effects. The kid profiled in the Herald article had a particularly adverse reaction to Spice (my guess is he’s allergic to one of the substances in this human catnip), but his experience is exceedingly rare.

The graphic that accompanied the article showed that reports of Spice “poisoning” reported to the Northern New England Poison Control Center peaked at 55 last year and are already declining. In the past three years, there have been a total of 124 reported cases of adverse Spice reactions in Maine — about 41 per year; hardly the mark of an alarming epidemic in a state of 1.3 million people. Half the counties in Maine had three or fewer reported Spice “poisonings” in the past three years.

Those kinds of stats don’t constitute a “surge.” Reporter Joe Lawlor even quotes a supervisor at the Preble Street Teen Center in Portland who says Spice use is already falling out of fashion. “The youth have had so many negative experiences with it that I think the word has gotten out and it’s not being used as much,” Daniella Cameron told the paper.

This kind of Reefer Madness-style fear mongering may sell a few additional papers and prompt a “surge” in Web hits, but it does a disservice to the public by distorting the reality of drug use in Maine. The far more interesting finding — noted in the article’s subheading but otherwise left unexplored — was the fact there have been more calls to the poison center about Spice in the past three years than there were reports of bad reactions to cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines.

In other words, behind the Spice hype there’s some great news about drug use in Maine: The abuse of coke and speed — drugs that, unlike Spice, are physically addictive and not infrequently deadly — has been eclipsed by cases of youngsters dabbling in fake pot and getting tummy aches.

The other article that caught my attention was picked up by the BDN. The headline: “Heroin users among us: Drug is becoming more upscale, ‘suburban’ in New England.”

In this not-so-shining example of responsible journalism, we’re told that heroin use is on the rise, and the increase is not among those stereotypically perceived to be addicts (poor, inner-city black and Latino men) but rather among wealthier suburbanites — women, in particular.

It would be shocking indeed to learn that a growing number of Scarborough soccer moms are injecting smack. But, luckily, there’s not a shred of evidence behind that idea.

First off, though published by a paper in Maine, the article was written by a reporter for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. The primary source for reporter Douglas Moser’s story is a psychology professor in Lowell, who offers only weak, anecdotal evidence to back up the story’s central claim.

Heroin use “seems to be more in the suburbs,” among people who are “perhaps higher on the socioeconomic scale,” says this shrink, who Moser reports has having “seen some indications” in conversations with drug-treatment professionals that the average smack addict is younger these days than in, say, Lenny Bruce’s time.

Later in the story, we finally get some hard data, from the Centers for Disease Control, that indicate heroin use among high schoolers has not risen significantly since 1999 and is especially low in Massachusetts.

Comparable numbers for Maine do not exist, but there’s now strong anecdotal evidence that editors of the state’s biggest dailies are whacked out on something.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.