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Opinion | Is Our Homelessness Crisis Really a Drug Problem?

These stories spread fear among the public and stigmatize people on the street. It’s one thing to believe, for example, that the people who live in the encampments in your town are heroin or fentanyl addicts on the fast path toward overdose; it’s quite another to believe their minds have been poisoned by a new superdrug that turns them into violent lunatics.

Quinones concedes that the specific effects of P2P meth have not yet been studied. The evidence he produces about its psychosis-inducing effects are anecdotal and make some assumptions about cause and effect. For example, Quinones writes, “As I talked with people across the country, it occurred to me that P2P meth that created delusional, paranoid, erratic people living on the street must have some effect on police shootings.” He talks to police officials and a special prosecutor in Albuquerque who tell him that a combination of cheap meth and bail reform have created a population of people who lose their minds, get arrested and then are released right back onto the street, where they induce themselves straight back into their P2P meth-induced psychosis.

As further proof, Quinones writes: “For years, fatal police shootings numbered about two or three annually in Albuquerque. That figure doubled as the P2P meth took over. Between 2011 and 2020, 60 percent of the people shot to death by Albuquerque police officers — 36 of 60 people — had meth in their bloodstream, up from zero in 2009.” It certainly is notable that more people had meth in their system when they were shot by the police, but what Quinones doesn’t say is whether the people shot by the police before the introduction of P2P meth had other drugs in their system. If meth, as Quinones credibly claims, took over the city’s drug trade, it makes sense that more users would have it in their system, whether they were shot by the police or not. But this is far from proof that the drug itself caused users to lose their minds in a way that made them more prone to getting shot by the cops. More important, a “doubling” of police shootings from “two or three annually” to presumably four to six could be explained by any number of factors, including the statistical randomness that plagues sample sizes this small.

Some of the power of Quinones’s book comes from how it has been positioned as almost illicit information — the hard truth that nobody wants to talk about. But is this actually true? As Ned Resnikoff, the policy manager at the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out in a recent blog post titled, “How The Atlantic’s Big Piece on Meth and Homelessness Gets It Wrong,” there’s a wealth of studies out there about drug use and homelessness and a host of experts who have devoted their careers to the exact problems that Quinones outlines in his book.

My sense is that what Quinones is really saying is that there are progressive journalists who, out of some misguided fealty to political correctness, are afraid to tell the obvious truth about meth and homelessness. Toward the end of the book, he writes that any solution to the synthetic drug crisis requires people to come together and look out for the people at the bottom of society from whom the book derives its title. “The [drug] crisis is teaching us that we’d be wise to get our news by reading it, and demand more of ourselves as we develop opinions instead of swiping them from memes and ranters,” Quinones writes. “That we’d be equally wise to shed inquisitorial political correctness, cancel culture, and bizarre QAnon conspiracies, and instead fight hard for what brings us together.”

The fear of cancellation may very well be real for many journalists who write about homelessness, but I think others, including myself, would like to see more evidence about the psychosis-inducing effects of P2P meth than Quinones provides. There’s no question that meth, in general, can cause users to experience rapid declines in their mental health. Seeing those people suffering in the streets elicits powerful responses in others, whether compassion, revulsion and fear, or at the very least, a sense that something has gone very wrong. It also makes sense that a flood of cheap supply would allow addicts to use more, which, in turn, would lead to the rapid deterioration that Quinones documents. Perhaps the problem is just that there is more meth overall.

I listened to an audio version of “The Least of Us” on a series of drives along the Northern California coast, including a trip to Santa Cruz, a surf haven filled with towheaded kids biking through quiet streets with surfboards tucked under their arms. Meth has ripped through Santa Cruz over the past 20 years. Everyone from famous big wave surfers to local mothers have become addicted. Like so many other cities on the West Coast, more and more homeless encampments have begun to spring up throughout town

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