Nebraska gets a lesson that other states have already learned.

One of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels is now the main distributor of methamphetamine in Nebraska, federal law enforcement officials say.

The Sinaloa Cartel has built a sophisticated drug-trafficking operation in Omaha over the past five to eight years, according to the FBI . . .

Cartels increased their presence in Nebraska about the same time state officials effectively shut down local meth labs through laws limiting the sale of cold medicines, U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg said.

Several top Nebraska law enforcement officials say methamphetamine trafficking from Mexico is the most serious drug threat to the state, and the problem is slowly growing.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized 230 pounds of meth in Nebraska between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30 — more than double the amount seized two years ago.

“The volumes (of meth) that we are seeing now are significantly more than what we were seeing three years ago,” Sanders said.

So Nebraska has fewer homemade meth labs, but there’s more meth on the street, and now instead of busting small, localized distributors, local officials are up against an international crime syndicate.

These results may have been unintended, but they certainly weren’t unpredictable. Other states that put heavy restrictions on cold medication have seen similar problems. The pseudoephedrine restrictions went national in 2006 when Congress snuck the provision into reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Within five years, we knew the law had little effect on the meth supply. From an Associated Press report in 2011:

 . . . [an] analysis of federal data reveals that the practice has not only failed to curb the meth trade, which is growing again after a brief decline. It also created a vast and highly lucrative market for profiteers to buy over-the-counter pills and sell them to meth producers at a huge markup.

In just a few years, the lure of such easy money has drawn thousands of new people into the methamphetamine underworld.

“It’s almost like a sub-criminal culture,” said Gary Boggs, an agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration. “You’ll see them with a GPS unit set up in a van with a list of every single pharmacy or retail outlet. They’ll spend the entire week going store to store and buy to the limit.”

Inside their vehicles, the so-called “pill brokers” punch out blister packs into a bucket and even clip coupons, Boggs said.

In some cases, the pill buyers are not interested in meth. They may be homeless people recruited off the street or even college kids seeking weekend beer money, authorities say.

But because of booming demand created in large part by the tracking systems, they can buy a box of pills for $7 to $8 and sell it for $40 or $50.

The tracking systems “invite more people into the criminal activity because the black market price of the product becomes so much more profitable,” said Jason Grellner, a detective in hard-hit Franklin County, Mo., about 40 miles west of St. Louis.

“Where else can you make a 750 percent profit in 45 minutes?” asked Grellner, former president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association.

Since tracking laws were enacted beginning in 2006, the number of meth busts nationwide has started climbing again. Some experts say the black market for cold pills contributed to that spike. Other factors are at play, too, such as meth trafficking by Mexican cartels and new methods for making small amounts of meth.

Oregon has one of the strictest laws in the country when it comes to obtaining cold medicine that contains pseudoephedrine. The state requires a doctor’s prescription. Proponents of such laws often cite Oregon as a success story, but closer scrutiny of data there doesn’t back up their claims. Mississippi also requires a prescription to get cold and allergy medications with pseudoephedrine. And again, while the law has shut down the state’s meth labs, here too, Mexican cartels have stepped in to fill the void. From an AP report last March:

An underworld that traffics meth has found its way to South Mississippi, with Mexican drug cartels sending small groups to handle the delivery of meth in its most potent form.
The addictive stimulant is known as Mexican meth, crystal meth or ice because of its appearance.

Hundreds of kilos of ice have been found here in the past couple of years and most of it is linked to Mexican drug cartels and their super labs, said Daniel Comeaux, agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Gulfport office.
“Drug cartels are trying to infiltrate different states and are setting up cell heads as distributors,” Comeaux said. “That’s what we are seeing here.” . . .
The influx in South Mississippi is in line with a DEA assessment that shows a shifting landscape nationwide and the possible effects of a 2010 Mississippi law that outlawed popular decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used to make meth . . .
Since the law passed, reports of home meth labs, dump sites and related chemical and equipment finds have decreased dramatically. In 2010, 912 were reported to the El Paso Intelligence Center. There were 321 in 2011 and six in 2012.

A home meth lab can make a couple of ounces of meth, but a super lab can churn out 10 pounds of ice every 24 hours, according to a Government Accountability Office report to Congress . . .

Ice is said to be about twice as potent as homemade meth.

Mississippi officials also report an increase in “shake and bake” labs since the law took effect, a method of making smaller, individual-use quantities of the drug that can still be dangerous. Overall, they say meth use hasn’t been much affected.

According to the Hinds County Narcotics Unit it hasn’t seen any meth labs from 2012 until now. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t still using meth.

“Meth use is still prominent as it always has been. We’re seeing the higher grade of meth coming from Mexico. They have the super labs, which refines the product to the purest form, and it’s demanding. Which is coming from Mexico and being trucked into the United States,” Oster said.

And of course, as is often the case with the drug war, the government’s decision to focus on supply instead of treatment, and to punish everyone for the deeds of a few, has led to a number of horror stories in which new laws and aggressive police tactics have targeted innocent people. I laid out a few of them in a 2012 piece for the Huffington Post:

Overeager enforcement of the meth laws has also ensnared some innocent people, including several incidents in which parents and grandparents (especially families with multiple children with severe allergies) have been arrested for inadvertently exceeding their legal allotment of cold medication. In fact, when the federal government made its very first arrest under the new meth law, the Drug Enforcement Adminstration celebrated with a press release. William Fousse of Ontario, New York, the release explained, had purchased nearly three times the amount of cold medication he was allotted under the new law. But even federal prosecutors would later admit they had no evidence Fousse was manufacturing meth. He says he was unaware of the new law, and was stocking up on cold medication because it helped him recover from hangovers. He was still convicted and sentenced to a year of probation.

In 2005, 49 convenience store clerks in Georgia were arrested by federal law enforcement officials for selling the ingredients to make meth to undercover officers. Of the 49, 44 were Indian immigrants who didn’t speak English as their primary language, yet they were expected to understand the meth-maker lingo the agents used in their stores. (Defense attorneys would later point out that the agents were in fact using terms used more in TV and movies than by actual meth cooks.) In Mississippi, which like Oregon requires a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine products, a woman was pulled over, searched and arrested this month for driving to Alabama to buy cold medication. Mississippi law also bars state residents from crossing the state border to purchase the medication.

There have been other questionable arrests and prosecutions in Iowa, Florida, and elsewhere.  Putting pharmacists in charge of policing people has also created an antagonistic relationship between the health care providers and their customers.

All of the hassle and suspicion has caused some cold sufferers to just do without the medication.* Sales of cold and allergy medication in West Virginia plummeted after new restrictions took effect in that state. Yet meth lab seizures in the state actually went up after the law took effect. Law enforcement officials speculate that while the law may have put a dent in large meth labs that cooked the drug for a large number of people, the people who bought from those suppliers simply turned to making the drug for themselves, using the shake and bake method.

The fact that meth can be manufactured with an ingredient found in legal, mostly over-the-counter medication has caused an odd split in alliances on this issue. Progressive outlets like Mother Jones and CounterPunch, who are normally critical of drug war excesses, have recently run articles advocating for requiring a doctor’s prescription to obtain medication with pseudoephedrine. Both publications credulously cite drug war proponents that progressive outlets usually treat with far more skepticism. Though both publications cite some of the figures I’ve tried to contextualize and pushed back against in this post, their strongest argument in favor of the requirement seems to be little more than that the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs are strongly opposed to it. Even that claim is somewhat complicated. Pfizer, for example, lobbied in favor of putting pseudoephedrine meds behind the counter because doing so benefited the company’s rival medication, which used a pseudoephedrine substitute. The substitute ingredient can’t be used to make meth. The only drawback: It’s just as useless at fighting cold and allergy symptoms.

So far, the only proven benefit of restricting consumer access to cold and allergy medication has been a reduction (which admittedly has been dramatic in places) in the number of dangerous homemade meth labs. That isn’t insignificant. Those labs are toxic, and hazardous to police, the community and the surrounding environment. But it has come with a number of costs, including the proliferation of the smaller shake and bake labs, the infiltration of Mexican drug cartels to meet the demand, the more potent meth those cartels bring with them, the significant hassle and barriers to millions of cold and allergy sufferers (which increase considerably under a law requiring a prescription), and the monitoring, targeting, arrest, and in some cases prosecution of innocent people. Finally, even if you believe the government has a responsibility to protect people from themselves, none of this seems to have done much to reduce the availability of meth. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “[m]ethamphetamine use has remained steady, from 530,000 current users in 2007 to 440,000 in 2012.”

Here’s one idea that makes too much sense for anyone to seriously consider: Legalize amphetamines for adults. Divert some of the money currently spent on enforcement toward the treatment of addicts. Save the rest. Watch the black markets dry up, and with them the itinerant crime, toxicity and smuggling. Cold and allergy sufferers get relief. Cops can concentrate on other crimes. Pharmacists can go back to being health-care workers, instead of deputized drug cops.

Everybody wins, save of course for those who can’t bear the prospect of letting adults make their own choices about what they put into their bodies.

(*In 2012, the Journal of Apocryphal Chemistry published an amusing step-by-step guide for cold and allergy sufferers explaining how to reverse engineer common street meth in order to make the pseudoephedrine they needed to to relieve their congestion. The authors cheekily described their article as “a simple series of transformations which allow pseudoephedrine to be obtained in a more straightforward manner than is the current norm.”)