Meth Use: How Widespread on Campus?

As Justice Department reaches out to students, health educators are unsure of the extent of the problem.
November 30, 2006

Methamphetamine surged into the national consciousness in recent years, called “America’s most dangerous drug” ( Newsweek) and an “unnecessary epidemic” ( The Oregonian). A drug that was popular in the 1960s as the province of bikers, dieters, and college students and truckers struggling to stay awake had faded in popularity only to reemerge in a big way, with reported lifetime use of methamphetamine among adults more than doubling from less than 2 percent in 1994 to about 5 percent a decade later, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some called the media accounts overblown and misleading, as anecdotes of the drug creeping from the Pacific to the Atlantic, sweeping into its swath some of the nation’s most rural communities along the way, attracted unprecedented attention. Today is the first National Methamphetamine Awareness Day, a brainchild of the Justice Department designed to further increase awareness of the drug’s toxic effects through events across the states, including some on campuses.

College officials generally say use of the drug isn't often observed at their institutions and, at an October conference on college health, not a single health professional packing a room for a presentation on "other drugs" raised a hand to indicate that methamphetamine is a big problem on campus. But its prevalence particularly in pockets -- and the numbers and perhaps even the unknowns -- indicate there is some cause for concern.

Young adults aged 18 to 25 exhibit the highest rates of methamphetamine use nationally, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. However, college students are less likely to use methamphetamine than those their age not in school: In 2005, 1.7 percent of full-time college students reported they had used methamphetamine in the past year, compared to a 4.9 percent usage rate reported by their peers not enrolled, according to the Monitoring the Future Study at the University of Michigan. Data from the study also suggests that prevalence of methamphetamine use among 19 to 28-year-olds has remained relatively stable since it was first measured in 1999.

The drug’s rate of abuse among college students is about a third of that of Ritalin, said Helen Stubbs, spokeswoman for the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, and far lower in prevalence than the binge drinking that keeps both college students and those that care about them up at night

“It’s markedly lower than other substances that are of greater concern. But I think where the concern is here, and perhaps why this awareness day is being set up, is that if you look country-wide, these substances are on the rise. Many have witnessed an increase in meth use across the country and certainly it happens in certain pockets of the country,” said Stubbs.

“We’re looking at generally low percentages here in terms of prevalence. But obviously, when you think of the millions of people in college, that translates into a large number of people.”

While Stubbs said she hears greater concern about prescription drug abuse from college health practitioners across the country, use of methamphetamine -- a highly addictive, manufactured stimulant that in the short-term decreases appetite and delivers a euphoric rush, and in the long-term can cause, among other things, paranoid behavior and brain damage -- can be devastating to those who get hooked.

“It’s a nightmare -- we’re talking months to years for a person’s brain to come back online so to speak,” said Gary Rubinstein, coordinator of the substance abuse program at the University of Nevada at Reno. Nevada has the fourth-highest percentage (3.81 percent) of 18 to 25 year-olds reporting methamphetamine use since 2002, according to federal data. Other states in the inglorious top 10 are mainly concentrated in the West, with areas in the Midwest and South also represented: Wyoming is at the top of the list, with 4.58-percent reported use among young adults, followed by Arkansas, Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Washington and New Mexico. Use among young adults is lowest in New York (0.3 percent), Connecticut and Vermont (both 0.4 percent).

But while meth abuse has long been associated with white, male, blue-collar workers, in the Northeast today, one researcher said its use is often pigeonholed primarily as a threat to young gay men, a sub-group in which HIV transmission has been linked to unsafe sex practices fueled by use of the drug. (The Justice Department-funded study also points to research finding that the drug’s use in gay and bisexual communities in Western cities is connected to unsafe sex and injection practices and failure to take HIV medication). But Perry Halkitis, director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies and associate dean for research and doctoral studies at New York University -- and himself a leading researcher on meth use among gay men – said the potential for meth abuse on the East Coast extends well beyond the gay population.

“I think the attention solely on the gay community on the East Coast prevents us from being more proactive in dealing with this drug as it may spread to young straight kids, college kids,” Halkitis said. He thinks East Coast colleges are missing their window of opportunity to educate all students to prevent the higher levels of meth use common in other areas.

“In places where you can prevent it, there’s not a lot of discussion going on,” said Halkitis, who added that the drug may be particularly attractive to college kids because it helps users lose weight, stay alert and boost their feelings of well-being. “This is a drug that holds potential for great abuse. I’m not saying it’s going to go there, but it certainly might.”

Yet, college officials on the front lines in states with the highest rates of methamphetamine use say that while they see the effects of the drug in their regions , it’s just not a very big problem on campus. Less than 1 percent of University of Montana students report meth use, said Linda Green, director of health enhancement at Curry Health Center at the University of Montana. Rarely do admitted users show up for counseling either, Green said. “It’s our guess that we don’t see students who are using methamphetamine because they just can’t succeed in college. So if they come in and they’re using, they probably aren’t going to stick around very long.”

“I hear differently from students,” Green added. “Some of them know people that use meth that are still functioning. They don’t know lots of people for sure, but they do know some.”

An informal survey of police departments at flagship universities in the five states with the highest methamphetamine use rates among young adults likewise revealed the virtual invisibility of student methamphetamine use to those with a vested interest in tracking it. “We understand that this is a huge issue, it’s a big issue in Wyoming, and there has to be some of it going on, but we’re just not seeing it here,” said Kevin White, interim chief of the University of Wyoming Police Department and a state legislator.

“We just don’t run into it on campus, although it’s all around us. Every day the newspaper has stories about people being arrested for it,” said Gary Crain, public information officer for the police department at the University of Arkansas, where, of 39 substance abuse cases recorded since February 2005, none involved methamphetamine. At the University of Minnesota and University of Nevada at Reno, police department spokesmen said that their involvement with methamphetamine primarily occurs when they stop people passing through campus who are unaffiliated with their institutions. In Reno, the university police department comes into contact with methamphetamine possession among visitors to campus weekly, said Todd Renwick, the assistant chief, but he “can’t recall the last time we actually took meth off of a student.”

Rubinstein, Nevada’s coordinator for its substance abuse program, said that while “Nevada’s a high-risk community, I’m not sure if our student data is that much different than the national norm.”

“Our students fortunately don’t exhibit that level of meth dependence. They definitely abuse and they get into trouble but it’s in my private practice that I see people from the community who show all the worst-case scenarios.”

Yet, Peg Shea, executive director of the Montana Meth Project, a prevention-oriented non-profit organization, pointed out that there are a lot of unknowns and that methamphetamine use, although far less prevalent than alcohol or marijuana abuse, needs further study within the college-aged population. “It is under the radar for, on the surface, good reasons, but I think there are questions about how widespread the use is, what’s happening to the individual students. Has anyone taken a close look at the drop-out rate to see if there are any substance abuse issues connected with it? I don’t think people really know,” said Shea.

“We’ve heard a fair amount of anecdotal information from college kids regarding methamphetamine being available on college campuses throughout the state, particularly to help them stay awake and complete some of their college tasks, such as getting papers done,” said Shea. She added that students from across her state have contacted the Montana Meth Project to research college newspaper articles and academic papers they write on methamphetamine use.

“There’s a fair amount of interest. You wonder why.”


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