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New report finds rise in arrests didn’t slow an explosion of meth use and overdose deaths across America

From 2015-2019, the data studied showed arrests rose in 40 out 43 states by an average of 80% in each state, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ new report

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Despite a rise in arrests for possession of meth, both the use of meth and subsequent overdose deaths skyrocketed from 2015-2019, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable TrustsThe report found that arrests for meth possession increased by almost 60% across the country while people using meth rose by 37% and overdose deaths more than doubled.

Earlier research from Pew showed that drug arrests overall did not drop from 2009 to 2019 despite lower arrest rates for cannabis. This was due to higher rates of arrest for meth. This inspired them to look deeper into drug use by type of substance across the country, according to Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.


“This is not a problem that because you live in a state that hasn’t traditionally had a big meth use problem you can ignore,” Velázquez said.


The Pew analysis found that more than 2 million people used meth in 2019, the most recent data available, and half of those users qualified for substance use disorder, meaning that meth use significantly impacted their ability to function. In 16 states, at least 1 in 100 adults used meth in 2019.


“Meth use is growing across the country, overdoses are growing across the country, and policymakers and states that have not traditionally thought about it as a problem they need to deal with, they need to start thinking about dealing with it,” she said.

“Lacking other tools to deal with this growing meth problem, communities are hoping that they can arrest their way out of it."

Other studies and reports show that overall drug use and overdoses continue to rise since the pandemic. Preliminary data reported 1 in 3 drug overdose deaths nationwide involving meth in 2021, compared with 1 in 4 in 2019.


And the meth people are using is deadlier. Overdose deaths more than doubled from 2.1 to 5.6 per 100,000 people. Part of this is due to meth contaminated with fentanyl. Deaths involving fentanyl more than quadrupled from 7% to 31% over the five years.

On average, meth possession arrests rose almost 80% across the country. They more than doubled in nine states and rose in 40 out of 43 states. Ohio, Illinois, New York and Nevada lead the country with increases over 200%. 


“Lacking other tools to deal with this growing meth problem, communities are hoping that they can arrest their way out of it,” Velázquez said.


Previous research shows that increasing arrests for drug possession does not lead to a reduction in drug use. Velázquez said there is no reason to think that targeting meth use through arrests would work this time around. She said that they hope the report encourages the federal government to develop and research novel treatments such as a Narcan, which counteracts opioid overdoses, for meth overdoses.


Velázquez also pointed to harm reduction strategies which address underlying mental health issues that spur self-medicated illicit drug use and also attempt to reduce the risk of drug consumption such as supervised drug use sites. 

Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts

“We feel that it’s a sort of an inflection point, where how we address the issue of meth use going forward can make a big difference in what this looks like, five years from now,” Velázquez said.


“I am hopeful that substance use disorder is seen as a health issue that isn’t someone’s fault. It’s not a personal failing, but rather a result of both their own biology and environment.”


Read the full report here.

credit: Pew Charitable Trusts

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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.