Ice, Ice, Baby

Arizona moms are abusing meth more than any other drug. Want to get them clean, save the family and save tax dollars? Try dangling their kids as the carrot

The conservative view of drug use during pregnancy is that the mother is committing a voluntary and illegal act against the rights of the fetus. From this view, women who use drugs when pregnant are willfully hurting their children, a crime that deserves significant punishment. The same goes for a parent who uses or manufactures the drug in the presence of their children.

Throughout history, American voters have generally liked the idea of punishing drug users better than the idea of treating them.

And to be honest, punishment is just about as effective at changing behavior as the average short-term outpatient treatment program.

Maggie Voss and her family: ÒI was incredibly lucky to be given a shot at recovery and redemption.Ó
Peter Scanlon
Maggie Voss and her family: ÒI was incredibly lucky to be given a shot at recovery and redemption.Ó
Jeff Taylor, a former addict, is a leader in the push for residential treatment for mothers.
Peter Scanlon
Jeff Taylor, a former addict, is a leader in the push for residential treatment for mothers.

The problem is, in meth-afflicted families, punishment of the parents usually ends up punishing the children while doing nothing to solve the core problem.

Especially damaging was the political response in the late 1980s to the rise in the use of crack cocaine, particularly among women with children.

"So many lives were ruined during that time based on bad science or no science," Lester says. "We can't let that repeat itself with the response to methamphetamine."

Lester conducted the nation's most comprehensive long-term study on the effects of crack cocaine on mothers and their children.

"For cocaine, we now know that early scientific reports were exaggerated and portrayed children who were exposed to cocaine in utero as irreparably doomed and damaged."

In fact, Lester's research showed that crack-cocaine-exposed children did have deficits in intelligence and language skills, but those deficits were minor and often easily overcome in special-educational settings. Also, crack-exposed children did show increased difficulty paying attention and handling abstract thinking problems. Again, though, the problems were minor and conquerable.

They were nothing close to problems experienced by children with fetal alcohol syndrome.

In addition, University of Florida researchers studied two groups of infants born with cocaine in their systems. One group was placed in foster care, the other with birth mothers able to care for them. After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.

Consistently, the children placed with their birth mothers did better.

"For the foster children, being taken from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine," says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

But that was exactly what most policymakers in the 1980s and early 1990s wanted to do: Immediately separate mother from child. Also, throughout the crack scare, increasingly popular across the country were laws greatly increasing prison time for crack-addicted mothers.

At the same time, Lester says, children exposed to crack as babies were stigmatized within the educational system. Often, these children were "expected to fail," he says, "and when you're expected to fail, you usually do."

While everyone focused on crack cocaine, Lester says, they ignored the reality of the average substance-abusing household. Typically, in such a family setting, more than one drug was getting abused. And beyond those drugs, there were often myriad other forms of neglect and abuse coming from directions other than the crack-addicted mother.

Now, Lester says he is seeing the same sort of political storm brewing around methamphetamine, creating the same sort of erroneous information and damaging legislation.

And so far, Lester's research on in utero methamphetamine use shows it has nearly identical long-term effects as its first cousin, crack cocaine.

"If the meth effect is anything like the cocaine effect, which in the early stages it appears to be, it is mild and treatable," Lester says. "I just don't want us to make the same mistake with meth that we made with crack."

Which is why Lester and 90 other physicians, scientists and treatment experts released a statement in July imploring the nation's policymakers to address the methamphetamine problem with great care.

"We are concerned that policies based on false assumptions will result in punitive civil and child-welfare interventions that are harmful to women, children and families," the group's statement read.

The physicians called for policymakers to base their decisions on "the best research" and to focus on promoting the proven solutions -- "ongoing research and improvement and provision of treatment services."

Whether that will happen -- especially in regions of the country like Arizona, where law-and-order demagoguery wins elections -- is anyone's guess.

"You get these 'tough-on-crime' guys who have no idea how to actually be tough on crime," Lester says. "What they end up doing is just ruining lives and perpetuating crime over generations."

Detective Tim Ahumada is tough on crime. Has been for a quarter of a century.

He's still working on being smarter on crime, though. That is a lifelong process. And that is the only way you ever win any ground in the drug war.

"I know we need to do something more as a community, but I'm still not exactly sure what it is," admits Ahumada, who works with the Phoenix Police Department's Crimes Against Children Detail, a job that increasingly takes him into the homes of meth abusers with young children.

"As a police officer, I'm the intervention. I'm the quick fix. But I'm not the answer."

Ahumada, like a lot of veteran cops in the drug wars, is a dichotomy of hope and cynicism. He doesn't see that his 25 years have put a dent in drug use. In fact, he has plugged away as a new and bigger scourge has grown exponentially around him.

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