Opinion writer

The Economist highlights an interesting new study that claims a connection between meth labs and “dry counties.”

The authors argue that local prohibitions lower the price of drugs such as meth relative to alcohol. This is hard to prove, because dry counties share many traits with counties that have meth problems. The authors claim that after controlling for factors including income, poverty, population density and race, legalising the sale of alcohol would result in a 37% drop in meth production in dry counties in Kentucky, or by 25% in the state overall.

Since no one knows exactly how many meth labs there are in America, the paper uses those discovered by the police as a proxy for meth production (see map). They provide further evidence for their argument by noting that lifting the ban on selling alcohol would also reduce the number of emergency-room visits for burns from hot substances and chemicals (amateur meth-producers have a habit of setting themselves alight).

Of course, our maddeningly repetitive response to evidence that prohibition of an intoxicating substance is causing people to turn to more potent and dangerous intoxicating substances has always been to then crack down on those substances too. Imagine for a minute if instead of fighting meth addiction by punishing cold and allergy sufferers, these dry counties lifted their ban on alcohol sales. Better yet, imagine we made it easy to obtain legal amphetamines, which we did for a long time in this country. Now imagine that we spent, say, even a fourth of the money we spend on the drug war on facilitating treatment for addicts. The Portugal example suggests we’d have less addiction, less crime and fewer overdoses.

Meth is often the example prohibitionists pull out when someone points to an example like Portugal. “So you’d legalize meth, too?” But as the Economist piece suggests, meth is a product of prohibition (in this case alcohol, but also restrictions on amphetamines more generally), not an argument in favor it. We have a meth problem because we have drug prohibition. Without it, meth wouldn’t go away, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be as prevalent as it is today.

The map that accompanies the Economist article is interesting. Look at Missouri, which was one of the first states to require an ID to purchase cold medicine that contains pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the home manufacture of meth, along with restrictions on the amount of the drug one person can purchase per month. The state has since passed additional laws further restricting the sale of the drug. The laws prevented the sale of tens of thousands of boxes of cold medicine. But it was far from a success. “We still have a tremendous meth problem,” Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force director Mark McClendon told the Southeast Missourian last November. “But it’s importation. That’s where the problem is. The labs are not nearly as common as they used to be. … There’s still lots of imported meth in the area. It’s very prevalent.” The map shows that last year, Missouri and Indiana led the country with the most meth lab seizures.

McClendon added that he’d like to see his state require a prescription for pseudoephedrine. Again, the solution to a failed crackdown always seems to be more cracking down. That’s what Oregon and Mississippi have done. Both states now require a prescription for pseudoephedrine. And as you can see from the map, lab seizures in both states are down dramatically.

But that isn’t the whole story. Meth hasn’t gone away in Mississippi. A deputy in Jackson told a TV station in 2013, “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.” So instead of getting made in motel rooms and mobile homes, it’s now coming in from Mexico. It’s more potent, and it comes with all the attendant crime of an international black market.

In Oregon, the bulk of the decline in meth lab seizures actually occurred before the prescription requirement took effect in 2006. It also mirrored a similar decline in neighboring states that didn’t pass the prescription requirement. And as with Mississippi, the law didn’t do much to reduce the availability of meth. A 2011 report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy concluded that five years after the law was enacted, there remained a “sustained high level of methamphetamine availability” in Oregon. And the number of meth-related overdoses actually went upAs recently as June, the Portland Oregonian ran a story with this headline:

Meth still Oregon’s No. 1 problem, run mostly by Mexican drug traffickers

So in 2015, nine years after the most restrictive law in the country took effect, law enforcement officials in Oregon still believe that meth is the state’s “No. 1” problem.

This has been the story with these laws, over and over again.

  • Restrictive laws in West Virginia cut the sale of cold medicine in the state by more than 25 percent between 2013 and 2014. Meth is now coming to West Virginia from Mexico, leading editorials like this one from May, in which the Charleston Gazette-Mail laments that “West Virginia law enforcement isn’t equipped to fight Mexican drug cartels.” Some of the state’s lawmakers have responded by trying to push a prescription-only law.
  • Nebraska restricted the sale of cold medicine in 2005. The number of meth lab seizures fell from 321 in 2004, to just 9 in 2012. Yet in 2013, eight years after the law took effect, Nebraska law enforcement officials still said meth was the state’s “single biggest threat.” One drug task force reported a 1,000 percent increase in meth seizures from 2011 to 2013. The Lincoln Journal-Star reported last year that, “indictments involving meth constituted about 75 percent of the 165 [federal] indictments alleging drug trafficking in the state.” Where is all the meth coming from? The Omaha World-Herald reported last year that the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel “is now the main distributor of methamphetamine in Nebraska.”
  • The results have been similar at the national level. In a 2006 rider to the PATRIOT Act renewal, Congress passed a federal law requiring ID to purchase pseudoephedrine and putting federal restrictions on the amount of the drug anyone can buy in a month. Five years later, the Associated Press analyzed a decade of federal data and found that the law “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.” Meth-related incidents (arrests, seizures and lab discoveries) were up 34 percent in 2009. In the three states that passed more restrictive cold medication laws in 2008, the number of incidents went up 67 percent. That includes a whopping 164 percent increase in Oklahoma, the first state in the country to pass the ID law.
  • According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people reporting use of methamphetamine in the previous month jumped from 353,000 in 2010 to 595,000 in 2013. The number reporting use in the past year was about the same as it was in 2007. (The survey cautions against comparing data prior to 2007, when the survey methodology changed.)
  • According to the 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment, “methamphetamine availability is increasing in the United States.” Seizures of meth at the southwest border have increased threefold since 2011, and the meth they’re seizing is exceptionally pure.

The increasing availability of meth and the increasing restrictions on pseudoephedrine actually prompted the Journal of Apocryphal Chemistry to publish tongue-in-cheek step-by-step instructions on how to turn street meth into cold medicine.

Meanwhile, families in Oregon and Mississippi now have to schedule an appointment with a doctor to get cold medicine. That likely means time off from work and a co-pay for an office visit. This would seem like a pretty significant burden on, say, a low-income family with three or four allergy-laden kids. Other cold and allergy sufferers just face increasingly difficult barriers to relief. And there have been several reports over the years of people who certainly don’t appear to be drug manufacturers getting arrested and prosecuted for mistakenly buying more than their allotted share of pseudoephedrine.

Unfortunately, because meth can be produced from legal medication produced by pharmaceutical companies, it’s unlikely we’ll get any sanity on this issue any time soon. Traditionally, an alliance of progressives, libertarians and a smattering of small-government conservatives have pushed back on the drug war. That alliance has been pretty successful in forging a consensus in some areas, particularly marijuana policy. On meth, however, the presence of Big Pharma has pushed some progressives into alignment with prohibitionists. In the past few years, outlets from Mother Jones to CounterPunch to the Huffington Post have advocated for restrictions up to and including a prescription requirement, usually by citing the lobbying pharmaceutical companies have done against those laws, apparently on the logic that if Big Pharma is for it, everyone else should be against it. As I pointed out in a post last year, even this isn’t exactly right. Some drug companies have have actually lobbied for more restrictions when those restrictions could give them an advantage over competitors.

But let’s get back to that Economist article, and what could work — loosening the restrictions on intoxicants instead of tightening them. Here’s what I suggested in that post from last year, which I think the data suggest is even more clear now than it was then:

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.

Lawmakers only seem incapable of seeing any option but “cracking down.” So millions of innocent people get inconvenienced. A handful get arrested. And each new round of laws brings more unintended consequences. Inevitably the new regulations do nothing to cut off or even reduce the availability of meth. So lawmakers pass a new round of restrictions. And we do it all again.

And yet somehow it’s the passage above — the suggestion that we end this madness and let adults make their own decisions — that’s typically dismissed as crazy.