Despite 30 years and many billions of dollars spent on the Drug War, America's appetite for illicit drugs really hasn’t subsided. It merely shifts, as the same drugs (or incarnations of them) come in and out of vogue.
Inevitably, reaction from media, politicians and regulators to a particular drug's fashionability is overblown and does little to diminish actual abuse. Instead, efforts to thwart drug use often result in costly, needless hassling of law-abiding people that chip away at civil liberties (see the DEA’s relentless pursuit of Oxycontin-prescribing physicians for example).
The latest drug panic is over the rising use of methamphetimine. This time, the outrage seems to stem from the fact that some meth users not only make stuff in their own garages, but that a key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, can be derived from common cold and allergy medicines found in the local pharmacy.
Lawmakers across the country have predictably jumped into over-reaction. The state of Oklahoma – where meth use is soaring – acted first. Last year, the state passed a law requiring pharmacies to move cold and allergy medications behind the counter. Stores without pharmacies can no longer sell the drugs. Similar laws put limits on the amount of medication one customer can buy in a given period of time, and require customers to show identification and sign a registry before purchase. Those registries, of course, then need to be maintained and monitored.
About a dozen other states have or are about to follow Oklahoma's lead. Congress is set to act, too. Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo. and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have introduced federal legislation patterned after the law in Oklahoma.
But even the government's own data suggests that these laws won’t work, and won't significantly curb the supply of meth or its use. In some ways, they'll likely only make the problem worse. They'll put recreational meth users into more frequent contact with smugglers and traffickers, likely sparking increases in black market violence.
According to the DEA's own website, most of this country's meth comes not from garage laboratories in the Midwest, but from clandestine "superlabs" in California and Mexico. These labs smuggle pseudoephedrine in bulk from Mexico and Canada and use it to manufacture street methempamphetamine, which they then distribute across the country. Cold and allergy medicine never enters the picture. It's almost certain that these superlabs would compensate for any small dip in the meth supply caused by limiting homemade "meth cooks'" access to pseudoephedrine.
Laws like Talent-Feinstein and similar bills in statehouses across the country do little more than inconvenience cold and allergy sufferers. They also create yet another way for authorities to monitor and track our consumer habits. These laws also likely make common cold medicine more expensive for stores to stock and, therefore, more expensive for customers to buy. The registries and purchasing procedures will lead to longer lines at the pharmacy, particularly during cold and allergy season.
Supporters of these laws commonly point to the alleged success local authorities have had since the law in Oklahoma was passed. Noting the Oklahoma law, Talent and Feinstein wrote recently in the Washington Post that efforts there produced "an 80 percent drop in the number of meth labs seized. This law works. We should copy it."
But note the metric Talent and Feinstein choose to measure the law's success: "meth labs seized." It's an odd goalpost. It says nothing about actual meth use in the state, just the number of labs dismantled by law enforcement. The number of Oklahomans using meth may not have dropped at all (an official figure isn't yet available). It's very possible that the law has made Oklahoma's meth users turn to smugglers and traffickers to get their fix instead of cooking their own drugs at home. I'm not sure that's an improvement.
Supply of controlled substances always rises to meet demand. It's similar to the air in a balloon. You can squeeze the supply on one end, but the air inevitably pops up again elsewhere. The total volume of air in the balloon never changes.
Indeed, City University of New York pharmacologist John P. Morgan told Reason magazine's Jacob Sullum last January, "If the curtailment of [pseudoephedrine] works, such success will be temporary. Another method of manufacture or other supply will be found."
Sullum himself adds, "After the precursor phenyl-2-propanone was restricted in 1980, traffickers switched to ephedrine; when large quantities of ephedrine became harder to come by in the late ’90s, they switched to pseudoephedrine."
Of course, the very reason we have a meth problem is because Drug War policies have made similar drugs like cocaine more expensive (though by no means eradicated). Meth is in fact sometimes called "the poor man's cocaine." Step on the "cocaine" part of the balloon, and the air pops up elsewhere, as meth.
If Talent and Feinstein get their way, it will soon be impossible to buy common cold and allergy medication containing pseudoephedrine at stores that don’t have pharmacies. At stores that do, you’ll be asked to present identification and sign a registry, which will be monitored. Buy too much, and you could find yourself subject to investigation. Between sniffles, if your head’s clear enough, keep in mind that these hurdles lawmakers have thrown between you and cold-allergy relief will do little, if anything, to curb the actual use of illicit methamphetamine.
So long as we're getting hassled, I suppose, at least we know that our lawmakers are doing something. Never mind that what they’re doing is misdirected, ineffective and likely to create more problems than it solves.