In late 2002, I began what was supposed to be a three-month project on how Oregon treats people for meth addiction. But I quickly became consumed by a more fundamental question. What caused the nation’s methamphetamine epidemic, and can it be stopped?
The search for answers would take me from California’s Central Valley to Washington D.C., and on to Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia. It would require a painstaking reconstruction of the government’s 20-year history dealing with meth and its ingredients, as well as a detailed analysis of data on the supply and demand for illicit drugs. The results stunned both me and my editors.
We found that the meth trade is remarkably vulnerable to disruption. The reason: Mexican cartels that make the drug cannot do so without huge quantities of chemicals made in just a few factories worldwide. The government devised a plan to choke off the flow of chemicals 20 years ago, but that blueprint was never realized because of industry lobbying, bureaucratic culture and congressional ambivalence. In short, we concluded, this was an epidemic that could have been prevented.
I am still writing about meth four years later. Congress responded to parts of our October 2004 series, “Unnecessary Epidemic,” with proposed legislation that would monitor the trade in meth ingredients around the world. My editors and I have received numerous requests for reprints of the series from around the country. We plan additional stories in 2006 that will further explore the international dimensions of the meth trade.
The guiding principles behind all of our coverage were to think globally and test every assumption. Like many newspapers, The Oregonian for years carried daily stories of meth’s impact on the community. We wrote about lab explosions, theft, domestic violence. No one stepped back far enough to see the patterns that were evident from state to state, year after year. When we widened the lens, it suddenly became clear that the meth trade’s driving force lay far outside our state borders, and even the nation’s.
There was no template to follow with this project. Although academic researchers have studied cocaine extensively, few have examined the dynamics of the market for meth. The federal government has only recently begun to incorporate meth in the array of statistics it collects on illicit drugs. Basic data on the number of users from state to state was non-existent. We had to develop our own methods. Then, after the analysis was complete, we needed to put it in context through traditional reporting — interviews with scientists, academics, industry executives, lawmakers, drug agents and social workers. My editors challenged every word I wrote. They constantly pushed me for more reporting. Small wonder “Unnecessary Epidemic” took 18 months to publish.
Despite the difficulties, this is the type of journalism I’ve always wanted to do. Reporters cannot count on government officials or academia to answer every timely question of social importance. We must be prepared to think like social scientists ourselves sometimes, using whatever input we can from qualified experts to develop our own, independent review of the data. We should do more than present readers with a chronology of events; we should strive to think analytically about the reasons behind those events.
In this case, we hope the final product provided a framework for readers to make sense of a devastating problem that often seems beyond control. And, we believe, it gave lawmakers information they need to develop better policies in the future.