Restrictions on Pseudoephedrine Supply Can Help Solve the Meth Lab Problem

by Rob Bovett
District Attorney of Lincoln County, Oregon
January 20, 2011

Last month, Patrick Murray wrote an essay for the Georgetown Public Policy Review entitled “Restrictions on Supply Won’t Solve the Meth Problem.” The essay criticizes an Op Ed I wrote for The New York Times promoting policies to return pseudoephedrine (PSE) to a prescription drug, as it was prior to 1976.

PSE is currently an ingredient in only 15 behind-the-counter cold products and their generics. Unfortunately, PSE is also the key ingredient necessary to make the powerful variety of methamphetamine that addicts seek.

While I agree with some of what Murray expressed in his essay, other parts are problematic. Instead of writing an entirely new piece, I thought it might be better to simply respond to some of Murray’s statements:

1. “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.”

The New York Times was more than gracious in giving me nearly 700 words for my Op Ed, but even at that length, it was simply not possible to cover everything. So let me do a bit more here:

Oregon drug arrests: Oregon’s PSE prescription law went into effect on July 1, 2006. From November of 2006 to November of 2008, there was a 31% drop in drug arrests in Oregon, despite an increase in the number of sworn law enforcement officers. The majority of that decline came from meth arrests. Most other types of drug arrests remained flat or only increased slightly.

Oregon crime rates: According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and Oregon Department of Justice, 78% of property crimes are committed by addicts stealing to pay for their addiction. In 2008, Oregon experienced the largest decrease in crime rates in our nation. By 2009, Oregon crime rates were at a 50-year low.

Findings from the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) – 2008 ADAM II Report: From the Executive Summary: “In Sacramento the proportion of arrestees involved in acquiring methamphetamine in the prior 30 days remains high (26%), unchanged from 2007. In Portland, Oregon, however, reported acquisition is significantly lower (13%) than 2007 levels (23%).” From the Conclusion: “Methamphetamine . . . declines significantly in one of the ADAM II western sites (Portland) from 2007 (20% positive) to 2008 (15% positive). Thirty-five percent of Sacramento arrestees test positive in 2008, representing no statistically significant change from 2007.”

Public Health Indicators: Oregon drug treatment admissions have remained relatively constant over the past five years. However, meth treatment admissions are down by over 20%. Furthermore, Oregon meth-related emergency room visits are down by a third.

2. “ . . . supply-minded policies do not address the true problem: that of the user.”

That is true for many, if not most, drugs of abuse. For meth, however, it is only partially true. Like some other synthetic drugs with a key necessary ingredient, such as quaaludes, the powerful variety of meth can be partly controlled on the supply side. Supply-side intervention is far from a solution to the meth epidemic, but it is a key component in an overall effective strategy to reduce domestic meth labs.

3. “As long as that demand exists, suppliers will find a way to meet it. And if anything defines meth suppliers, it is their resourcefulness.”

Agreed. Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are resourceful. But if the DTOs cannot get adequate PSE, they are forced to switch to an alternate and more difficult method of making a less potent variety of meth. Indeed, that is precisely what has happened since Mexico banned PSE entirely. But this is all beside the point. The purpose of returning PSE to a prescription drug, as it was prior to 1976, is not to get rid of meth. The purpose is to reduce domestic meth labs. Big difference. Domestic meth labs pose an unacceptable threat to public health and safety, the environment, and drug-endangered children.

4. “. . . such restrictions in domestic production opened the door for Mexican drug cartels to fill the excess demand.”

This is misleading, at best. These DTO’s were already providing most of the meth on the street. Even at the height of domestic meth production a few years back, domestic meth labs were only supplying 35% of meth.

5.“These cartels often can buy precursors wholesale, resulting in both a greater volume and potency of the drug.”

Greater volume, yes. Greater potency, no. Potency is down because the DTO’s have been forced to switch to methods of production that do not require PSE, which produces less potent meth.

6. “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.”

I never claimed it would. This is a straw man argument. The purpose of the policy is to reduce domestic meth labs. The experience in Oregon – and the more recent similar experience in Mississippi – bear out the success of this policy.

7. “Only policies that incorporate treatment, education, and rehabilitation can begin to address this issue.”

What is the issue? If the “issue” is meth labs, this statement is wrong. If the “issue” is the meth epidemic, then this statement is absolutely correct.

8. “[Science-based drug policies] need to be complex, region-specific, comprehensive, and – above all else – patient, as meth users tend to have high recidivism rates.”

Not so. Science-based policies need not be complex. In some instances, they are simple. When it comes to treating meth addicts, if we use evidence-based practices we get the same long-term positive outcomes as treating any other form of drug addiction. Many lives and families have been saved from the ravages of meth addiction once we shifted from drug polices based on fear to drug policies based on science.

9. “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.”

This statement is faulty for all of the reasons stated above, and more. Furthermore, I never suggested that this is the only policy we should consider to address the meth epidemic. It is, however, an effective and powerful strategy to control domestic meth labs.

For further information please see:
Resource web page regarding pseudoephedrine policies
Reference notebook for an Indiana legislative committee
“Meth Epidemic Solutions” article written for the North Dakota Law Review

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