Columns » Max Brantley

Meth madness

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Do you read our blog (www.arkansasblog.com)? You should. We often get the jump on local news. And there’s always plenty of visceral, spur-of-the-moment commentary, by us and readers. Last weekend, the subject was legislation that defines a pregnant mother’s use of an illegal drug as child abuse. I thought it was one of several ill-considered responses — among others were tougher sentences and sequestering of patent medicine from allergy sufferers — to methamphetamine abuse. I predicted the law would effectively criminalize drug addiction in new mothers because the required child abuse reports would inevitably lead to arrests. One of the sponsors, Rep. Robert Thompson, disagreed in a letter we published last week. In it, he — disingenuously, to my mind — omitted the bill’s language about reports to State Police. He also didn’t explain how the bill “provide[s] services to a newborn child,” since it provides only for the ratting out of drug-using mothers. The bill is, in the end, about punishment, not “service.” The drug warriors of the legislature know no other approach. We got the first results last week, when Hot Springs cops slapped two felonies on a woman who’d given birth a few days earlier to twins with drugs in their systems. The cops said the city investigated after a call was made by Children’s Hospital to the State Police, as the new law requires. Hot Springs cops predicted similar arrests in days ahead. I blogged about this in a way uncharitable to Thompson. Defenders responded loudly. They made me out a child abuse coddler, a liar and maybe even a drug abuser myself. I was unrepentant. A fetus is not a child, for one thing. But I also turned to experts quoted in a Chicago Tribune article on the down side of prosecutions of mothers with unhealthy habits. In Utah, calls to a pregnancy risk line where mothers had sought drug counseling dropped to near nothing after high-profile prosecutions of new mothers. The Tribune also noted that, invariably, poor and minority women are targeted for drug-testing more often than well-to-do women. Finally, women who are afraid to seek drug counseling or prenatal care are likely to be more strung out and have sicker babies when they do deliver. I should have saved my breath. The effort to present another perspective brought only more whomps upside my head from blog readers. Drug-using mothers should be in jail, one said. So call me crazy. But I think the legislature should be rational if it’s going to take a punitive, rather than rehabilitative, approach to maternal behavior. According to the Tribune article, 3 percent of delivering mothers use illegal drugs, but 54 percent use harmful legal substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a more prevalent problem than meth babies. So punish the heavy drinkers with abuse reports, too. And don’t forget men. There’s some indication that meth use by fathers passes health problems to children. I’m really with the governor. We need to treat drug abusers more like sick people than criminals. Nothing in the new law does that. In our methamphetamine madness, we prefer the simplistic. Spank ’em, just like we do school kids. A Hot Springs mother of two, jailed five days before she could get a bond hearing Monday, stands as proof of the consequences of the law, unintended or not.

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