Stupidest drug story of the week: The New York Times on Czech meth.

Stupidest drug story of the week: The New York Times on Czech meth.

Stupidest drug story of the week: The New York Times on Czech meth.

Media criticism.
Nov. 27 2007 5:56 PM

Stupidest Drug Story of the Week

The New York Times frets about a potential European methedemic.

New York Times. Click image to expand.

Don't begrudge newspapers for loading their pages with non-news the day after a holiday. Most folks don't work on holidays, so why should journalists? Based on the forest of evergreens planted on the New York Times'Page One the day after Thanksgiving, we can assume that 95 percent of the news staff took the holiday off.

There's no shame in publishing an evergreen the day after a holiday. But the compact between newspapers and readers holds that the holiday evergreens must be stout and sturdy, and not as flimsy and bark-beetle-bitten as was the Times' Nov. 23 story "Europe Fears That Meth Foothold Is Expanding; Drug Scourge Centered in Czech Republic."

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Nobody denies the prevalence of methamphetamine use in the Czech Republic, but the notion that the entire continent trembles at the prospect of a meth flood is supported by only one source in the Times article. A more accurate headline for the piece would be "European Fears Meth Foothold Is Expanding."

The Times' source, Thomas Pietschmann, is identified as the main author of the annual United Nations World Drug Report. Pietschmann tells the Times that Czechs are exporting the drug to nearby countries, that Baltic states are producing and exporting to Sweden and Finland, and that two labs have even been found in Vienna.

It all sounds very scary until you read the most recent edition of the United Nations' voluminous report on illicit drugs, of which Pietschmann is the main author. The report takes a much calmer approach in its discussion of European meth, stating:

Methamphetamine production in Europe continues to be limited to a few countries. For 2005 only the Czech Republic and the Republic of Moldova reported dismantling methamphetamine labs. Over the past decade, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Moldova and Slovakia have reported lab seizures consistently. Occasional lab seizures have been made in the Ukraine, Germany, the UK, Lithuania and Bulgaria. [Emphasis added.]

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On this note, a U.S. State Department report from 2006 held that the "usage and addiction rates of heroin and pervitine [methamphetamine] have stabilized or slightly decreased."

The Times article and the U.N. report agree about the proliferation of home, or "kitchen," meth labs in Europe. According to the Times, 416 such labs were seized in the Czech Republic last year, compared with 19 in 2000.

Why so many small meth labs all of a sudden?

The Times sidles up to the question about two-thirds of the way through the piece by explaining that Czech authorities started putting a crimp on access to ephedrine, a methamphetamine precursor, from a local factory about five years ago. When meth chefs can't obtain ephedrine, some switch to pseudoephedrine, which they buy in bulk or harvest from over-the-counter cold medications. As the Times explains, the home meth cooker tends to make his meth from the pseudoephedrine found in OTC medicines. This tends to prevent home meth cookers from turning out huge lots of the stuff.

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This dramatic increase in the number of labs, then, doesn't necessarily translate into a greater supply of the drug. The U.N. report shares the conclusion: "Because the majority of these [dismantled European labs] are small kitchen labs, the actual production is still limited." It could be that less meth is being produced by a greater number of labs!

The Times piece makes much of the recent increase in Czech meth seizures, reporting that during the 2000-to-2005 period, the amount of meth seized "rose fourfold" to 300 pounds. But as every drug wonk knows, pounds seized can be an unreliable marker of drug trends. A 2006 European Union report specifically warns against relying on seizure statistics to say anything meaningful about drug supply because there are too many variables pushing the data. Increases or decreases in seized pounds may reflect changes in police resources, priorities, and strategies. The size of seizures can fluctuate because police got lucky or unlucky. Reporting practices within a jurisdiction can vary from year to year, and so on.

For instance, the 2006 State Department study noted that seizures of hashish and ecstasy declined in the Czech Republic during 2005. But nobody in their right mind would extrapolate a decline in Czech hashish and ecstasy use based on that data alone.

If the Times seeks a powerful central nervous system stimulant that enjoys pan-European popularity, it might want to check out amphetamine—methamphetamine's chemical cousin. Although amphetamine is less potent than meth, in uncontrolled situations the effects are largely indistinguishable. This country-by-country survey of amphetamine-type stimulant use printed in the U.N. report shows 14 European countries—Denmark, England and Wales, Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Germany, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Hungary, and Switzerland—leading the Czech Republic in use. You could throw a dart at a map of Europe blindfolded and have a 25 percent chance of hitting a country in which an illicit amphetamine lab was dismantled in 2005. According to a European Union study, illicit amphetamine labs were taken down that year in Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Poland.

It could be that saturation of the European market by amphetamine is what's holding back Europe's meth flood. I can't say for sure. Perhaps an enlightening evergreen about European amphetamine use could be scheduled for the New York Times' Dec. 26 edition.

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The last third of the Times piece chronicles the reporter's visit to an unnamed Czech meth chef. Thanks to the precedent set in Branzburg v. Hayes, had this section of the story been reported in the United States, the reporter could face a subpoena forcing him to reveal the identity of the cooker. My guess is that there is no similar Czech precedent, but if a Czech legal scholar has one at his fingertips, please drop a line to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)