Following the federal 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Act and the augmentation of controls of meth precursors in individual U.S. States and in Mexico, the meth trade went into a swoon. Treatment admissions, drug purity and meth lab incidents all dropped substantially. Alas, all signs are that the respite is over.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health invariably underestimates meth use for a range of reasons, but because this measurement error is fairly systematic, NSDUH is still helpful in judging trends. The latest survey found an eye-popping 59.8% percent increase in the number of Americans reporting past-month meth use. Meth lab incident data also pose some interpretational challenges because of the large variation in size of labs, but the more than 100% increase in the past two years is simply too large to fob off as error of measurement, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
What happened? The controls on the purchase of cold medicine (e.g., the Methcheck electronic database) have now been subverted by armies of “smurfers”. The only policy that has been shown to lastingly curtail meth labs is making pseudoephedrine containing medicines (e.g., Sudafed) prescription only. Many states are now introducing such legislation, but the cold medicine industry is responding with a flood of lobbying money to prevent the change.
Among the counter-arguments I have heard, the feeblest had been offered by some law enforcement officials who say that Methcheck helps police find and bust methlabs. Since when in law enforcement is it better to allow a crime to happen and bust someone than it is to prevent the crime entirely? Another is that reducing access to cold medicine is too much of an inconvenience to the citizenry. It is an inconvenience, but in a state such as Tennesee that spent countless millions of dollars last year dealing with meth lab explosions, every taxpayer is coughing up something worse than phlegm: Hundreds of extra dollars in their tax bill every year (and people — including a disturbing number of children — who get burned when the labs go up in flames clearly pay a much worse penalty than that)
p.s. If you want to hear a great, short reading by Nick Reding from “Methland”, including a vivid account of a meth lab explosion, check out the Stanford Health Policy Forum Video Archive. Select “Methamphetamine: An American Epidemic” — Nick’s reading is in the first 15 minutes.