Ice, Ice, Baby

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And the attorney general's other claims?

"There are no published studies of children in meth-lab homes," he says. "The jump from meth to general research on abuse and neglect? None of that is valid.

"It's just like what we saw in the 1980s with crack cocaine," he says. "It's not science. It's politics."

Lester, the director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Children at Risk, who heads a massive National Institute of Health study on drug-addicted parents and children, knows the science better than anyone.

In the course of his research, though, he's also had to learn the politics of addiction, of which there are two basic camps.

The liberal persuasion looks at drug use as a public-health problem requiring compassion and understanding. From this perspective, he says, drug use during pregnancy, or in the presence of young children, must be treated in the same manner as depression or mental illness.

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.

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."

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Robert Nelson