Restrictions on Supply Won’t Solve the Meth Problem

by Patrick Murray

This month, Lincoln County, Oregon District Attorney Rob Bovett penned a New York Times op-ed outlining his state’s approach to restricting the production of methamphetamine, one of the more dangerous recreational drugs in America and one that can be produced domestically using over-the-counter ingredients. In 2006, Oregon began restricting the sale of medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, one of the key chemical precursors for synthesizing the drug and a substance commonly found in cold medicines such as Sudafed and Contac. Oregon’s approach is to make all of these medicines available only with a prescription, going a step farther than a 2005 federal law that restricted the amount an individual can buy at one time. Bovett cites that since the policy’s adoption, Oregon has seen a greater decline in crime rates than any other state in the union as well as a near-eradication of meth labs in the state.

But is that the whole story? While the policy has undoubtedly seen success in some measures (Bovett does not mention overall usage rates or methamphetamine-related crimes), in the end that success may not play out as optimistically as Bovett’s conclusions suggest. As many have pointed out, policies targeting the supply of illicit drugs – and policies regarding methamphetamine in particular – can have a myriad of unintended consequences.

The problem comes from the fact that supply-minded policies do not address the true problem: that of the user. The state of Oregon could require residents to produce three forms of identification and a blood sample in order to purchase pseudoephedrine but it would not change the fact that a significant portion still want to use meth. As long as that demand exists, suppliers will find a way to meet it. And if anything defines meth suppliers, it is their resourcefulness.

In its long, strange history in the United States, including its use as a stimulant for WWII soldiers, a diet pill for 1950s housewives, and a recreational drug that has come to define beat poets, biker gangs, and rural squalor alike, methamphetamine has shown itself surprisingly resilient in the face of restrictions on its supply. Initially, suppliers were able to buy precursors for the drug directly from pharmaceutical companies. When the federal government began monitoring such purchases, suppliers developed methods for synthesizing the drug from cold medicine. When the federal government began restricting these purchases, suppliers again responded with new methods of synthesizing the drug that required less pseudoephedrine or none at all. Others simply work out deals directly with pharmacies.

Additionally, such restrictions in domestic production opened the door for Mexican drug cartels to fill the excess demand. These cartels often can buy precursors wholesale, resulting in both a greater volume and potency of the drug. Furthermore, these cartels were able to use existing distribution routes to introduce the drug to more markets throughout the United States. Some DEA officials estimate that eighty percent of meth on U.S. streets comes from Mexican producers, none of whom are buying their ingredients in Oregon.

So while policies attacking suppliers can have some positive effects, as seen in the clear decrease of meth labs in Oregon, they cannot stop users from wanting to get high. Only policies that incorporate treatment, education, and rehabilitation can begin to address this issue. Such policies  need to be complex, region-specific, comprehensive, and – above all else – patient, as meth users tend to have high recidivism rates. If all we consider are policies such as Bovett’s, however, all we can be sure of is that it will be harder to buy cough medicine.

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